Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The 3 non-fiction books you need in your life

They say you can learn a lot about a person from the possessions they'd rescue if their house was burning down. For the purposes of this post, I think the same holds true if you replace 'possessions' with 'books', 'rescue' with 'didn't sell', and substitute moving abroad for the whole burning house thing.

Scanning our sparsely-populated shelves here in our SF flat, here's what I have learned: a surprising number of my non-fiction books accompanied me onto US soil. So, in honour of these brave little pioneers, and taking my cue from the Guardian's recent '100 Greatest Non-Fiction Books' list, here's my recommendations for three non-made-up books you have to read:

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City

It's a constant source of mystification to me why more people don't know about this book, or indeed the astonishing real-life story it tells. Larsen's ingeniously constructed book follows the lives of two very different men in 1890s Chicago, working in two very different professions. One is Daniel H. Burnham, a visionary architect on a mission to construct a mindblowingly ambitious city-within-a-city in time for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. The other is Dr H. H. Holmes, a handsome young doctor, hotel owner - and one of America's first documented serial killers.

While Burham toils to create his urban landscape, the 'White City' of the title that Chicago's leaders hope will finally see their city match New York in renown and stature, Holmes sets about converting his vast hotel into a bespoke 'murder castle', complete with gas chambers, body chutes and a vat of acid in the basement. All the while Chicago is inundated with newcomers - many of whom who are here to see the Fair, but also scores of young women seeking employment who will never get further than Holmes' hotel.

It's a testament to the compelling story of the Worlds Fair and the never-ending walk-on parts by historical celebrities - from Buffalo Bill and Thomas Edison to Gustave Eiffel and George Ferris - that Burnham's increasingly desperate quest to construct his White City is almost as gripping as the concurrent story of Holmes' depraved activities. The crazy thing is, if Holmes' story was fictional much of what transpires would be mocked for its sheer implausibility. This particularly applies to the incredible sequence of events towards the novel's climax, which sees Holmes spiriting the children of the man he's just murdered on a whistlestop tour around the United States whilst simultaneously escorting the dead man's widow on the same route - except she doesn't know her missing children are staying in the next street. Can you imagine any author getting away with that one?

Aside from being a total rip-roarer, The Devil in the White City is a engrossing exploration of the masculine desire to build things. The pressures of design and construction look like they might drive Burnham insane, yet two miles away from the Fair, a real madmen has found a way to subvert the very architecture of his home to his desires. The success of the White City will be conjured in the judgement of its visitors, whereas Holmes' own sprawling kingdom is designed to actually consume those who enter it. In the end, Larson puts it best in his introduction, stating that all sensationalism stripped away, "this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrows". It's a superbly constructed, compelling account of an unbelievable place and time.

Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

A tricky one to recommend, this one, since many people have seen Sean Penn's 2007 movie adaptation. I'm sorry to say I absolutely loathe that film, as for me, its determination to make a hero of its protagonist causes it to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the real-life story it retells.

Jon Krakauer's haunting book tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from Virginia who in 1990 gave away his $24,000 college fund and abandoned the trappings of his privileged life to wander the land for two years in a succession of transient labouring jobs, with the ultimate goal of stepping 'into the wild' and become self-sufficient in the remote Alaska wilderness. It was out there that his starved, emaciated body was discovered in 1992, decomposing in a derelict bus in which he'd made his home.

The genius of Krakauer's retelling of McCandless' life and death lies in its ability to understand why a young man hopped up on Jack London would want to undertake such a mission, whilst honestly depicting the human cost of his decision. Krakauer is a mountaineer himself (like Into Thin Air, his account of the 1996 Everest disaster, this book grew out of an essay for Outside magazine), and writes beautifully about the pull the unknown wilderness can exert, particularly on a male of a certain age. Yet he is unswerving on the subject of the anguish and grief endured by McCandless' parents and younger sister, not only following the news of his death but also in the period his two-year walkabout, during which Christopher rarely contacted them. Any lonely, agonising death is undoubtedly a tragedy, but it's hard to read Krakauer's account of a family in hell without experiencing a mounting sense of anger and frustration towards McCandless' actions. He wants to renounce material things and live a purer life, seeing himself as a noble soul out of sync with the real world, but his immaturity blinds him to the suffering his desires are inflicting on the family he derides as too preoccupied with the material world. He wants to achieve an understanding with nature, but can't even understand those closest to him.

Yet McCandless' desire to slough off a life he viewed as meaningless is, at heart, an extreme extension of the dilemma we all experience every day: how can I be the person I wish to be, whilst living in the world and without causing pain those who love me most? In its story of a privileged young man who purposely abandons his wealth to take up tools and work on the land, it closely resembles one of my favourite films, Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, which is similarly unafraid to present its protagonist in an unsympathetic light. Penn's film adaptation however, whilst beautiful to look at, persists in an indulgent portrayal of McCandless as some kind of noble, misunderstood martyr. The facts laid out in Krakauer's harrowing, unforgettably sad account - of a young man who walked into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley with only 10 lbs of rice and died aged 24 weighing just over 30kg - beg to differ.

Nick Davies, Dark Heart

I was thoroughly tempted to choose Davies' more recent Flat Earth News, his exploration of the misinformation and downright deception perpetuated by the media worldwide (it would have been a damn sight more enjoyable to write about, for one thing.) We all know the papers lie, and Flat Earth News is rightly celebrated for showing just how much. However, I'd be very surprised if the average reader approaching Dark Heart (police and social workers aside) is even slightly aware of the world it lays bare, and it's for this reason that it's on my list.

A warning: this book is a grim, unrelenting expose of the reality of poverty in contemporary Britain, and it is not cheery stuff. It begins with the author's chance encounter with two child prostitutes touting for business at a Nottingham funfair, giving Davies his cue to introduce us to a world that most of us convince ourselves doesn't really exist: an underworld of trafficking, drugs and abuse, all taking place under our noses in the cities we think we know.

The real value of Dark Heart is in the way it pulls right back from this shocking extreme, and takes us to where these desperate lives are incubated out of sight; to the estates crippled by unemployment and hopeless prospects, the care homes that spit out damaged and angry children and the stifling, limited lives endured by those who have just enough to eat. While making clear the physical consequences of poverty like malnutrition and sickness, Davies explicitly suggests that the effects of deprivation can be even more insidious, infecting whole communities and engendering a widespread sense of hopelessness that continues down the generations.

Davies' skill lies in his ability to make his reader understand the seemingly incomprehensible. In a political climate where the poor are regularly blamed for their own problems, where right-wing newspapers create the image of an underclass somehow revelling in welfare and crime, Dark Heart takes a more nuanced approach that refuses easy conclusions. In one particularly harrowing chapter, he recounts the brief life of a murdered sixteen year-old prostitute, and somehow conveys how voluntarily taking up this line of work held more allure than her suffocating life with a penniless family in a village with nowhere to go. It's a staggering notion, and one that makes anyone who's ever suspected that the poor just 'bring it on themselves' cringe.

Dark Heart is certainly not a perfect book. For me, the penultimate chapter's desire to uncover the gory details endured by young women trapped in the sex industry is very close to lapsing into sensationalism, and the 'ta-da!' aspect of Davies' conclusions (clue: Thatcher did it) feels over-simplistic even to this confirmed leftie. However, this doesn't detract from the fact that for the huge majority of readers, this will be the first time they've been confronted with these ideas. If nothing else, this angry, upsetting book confirms that it's not enough for those with comfortable lives to live in ignorance of what life might actually be like for others - however much we'd like to.

So there we go - three of the non-fiction books that were lucky enough to fly in the hold of a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747! Which ones would you have brought with you?


  1. I found this post through Tomcat and am so pleased I did. I have been reading more and more (which is still very little) non fiction in the last few years and these three look like absolute blinders to tyr moving forward. Thanks very much.

    1. lovable, etc.).
      After all, this is how all psychological defenses work. Tonjademoff.com

  2. Hi Simon, glad you enjoyed! They're three of the best books I know, fiction or not. They may not be on the Guardian Top 100 list, but too much of that struck me as their books staff trying to prove how monumentally intellectual they were (Vasari, Herotodus etc.). Like saying your favourite film is Amadeus when it's really Wayne's World 2. (*Cough*)

  3. I don't think I have favourite non fiction books. Or, rather - I don't think I could name 3 which I like bestest.

    Buuuut: 3 non-fic books I've recently loved would be:

    1) 'The Story of Art' by prof E.H.Gombrich. - An oldie, but great if you're a dedicated by ultimately amateur art history buff (like me). The standard criticism that his 'story of art' completely ignores anything Eastern/oriental is valid, but otherwise an awesome book.

    2) 'The Eerie Silence' by Paul Davies. (Or, *anything* by him). He's a Nasa astrophysicist and the current head of S.E.T.I. - 'The Eerie Silence' addresses the so-called 'Fermi Paradox' (basically: if the universe is so old, and so huge and so full of stars, why is there no evidence of life anywhere?). His style is conversational and witty and the book is crammed with hilarious pop-culture sci-fi references. Subject matter may be an acquired taste, but I'm a big dork for this kinda stuff.

    3)'Hiroshima' by John Hersey. The NYT names it the greatest piece of journalism ever written. It's a novelistic account of the lives of 8 survivors. Such people were called 'Hibukusha' by the Japanese (literally:'those who survived the bomb'), they were subject to massive stigma and discrimination; largely because of the fear/unknown quantity that was radiation exposure. But also, the Hibukusha were almost required to go into hiding out of shame - of surviving, not being scarred etc. A kind of extreme, socially-imposed survivors guilt. It's not an easy read, just because the subject matter is so upsetting. Beautifully written though.


  4. Thanks Tom! I read Gombrich aeons ago but should definitely revisit, and these other two sound amazing. I heart trusted recommendations.

  5. Darnit, forgot to add that for an incredible art history book I can't recommend Nigel Spivey's Enduring Creation: Art, Pain & Fortitude enough. My hardback edition weighs about 90 lbs, and yet it was deemed crucial enough to my existence that it made the journey over here, too. It's so good that after reading I developed a kind of intellectual crush on Spivey, who I used to see on his bike around Cambridge, and was nearly run over once because I was ogling him in the middle of the road. What a way to have gone.

  6. I can officially say that I have read just one of the Guardian's non fiction books (though I have always wanted to read Jan Morri's 'Venice' though when I am either there or just before I go - a trip isnt currently planned) which is 'In Cold Blood' by Truman Capote and is utterly incredible.

    I think that and the Mitford sisters 'Letters Between Six Sisters' which is one of the most amazing books in terms of who they knew and how funny and awful they could be, would be my top two. I am struggling on a third. 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' seems too cliched even though I did love that a lot.

  7. These books all sound much smarter than me.

    My two pence (or cents, although given the exchange rate I guess it'd be around 3 cents) on "the underclass" was that it was overwhelming to consider people living so very differently, and with such completely different outlooks on life, not 2 doors from our home. Until I'd been a PC, I had no idea how many people live in conditions I could never even imagine. I also learnt that there is a smell I will forever associate with crime, and I occasionally catch it on the bus, and it takes me back to dozens of places I visited in a less than friendly capacity.
    Whilst it feels a bit like hiding from the reality, I genuinely don't miss going to those places.

  8. Carly! You blog! And you've lured my friend Simon into commenting... a little bit of me wants to read the first book, but most of me knows I would find it horrifying...

  9. Thanks for popping in Tom - I was actually thinking of you when I wrote that 'police and social workers' caveat.

    Simon: aloha! I started this endeavour when I got over here, and have enjoyed the occasional foray into book matters (mainly because I'm reading such a ridiculous amount right now). The first book is most certainly horrifying in places, but a stonking read nonetheless.

  10. I have terrified myself by reading about the good doctor on Wikipedia (are YOU familiar with this site?) I HOPE (and this is ALL I hope) that you happy.