This week’s Non-Fiction November discussion is hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey Decimal:
We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.
Looking at my non-fiction favourites, it seems that what attracts me is what I can gain from the book. If this book can teach me something – whether it be about someone’s life or an important piece of history – and make an impact with how I view things, it usually becomes a favourite.
My all-time favourite book is Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This is a story that takes place in the deep segregated south in 1930s America. I’m a huge fan of Maya Angelou’s poetry and, for me, IKWTCBS was not only a great chance to see Angelou’s writing in a longer form but it also taught me a lot about living during the time of Jim Crow through a child’s perspective.
Another favourite of mine is Sammy Davis Jr.’s Yes I Can. Like Angelou’s memoir, Davis describes growing up in a segregated America during the ’30s and ’40s. However, while Angelou’s experience more closely resembled how I imagined life to be back then, Davis’ book offered a new perspective – That of a child being raised in showbusiness, in an environment where performers were integrated. It wasn’t until Davis was 18 and enlisted in the army that he had his first experience with racism and segregation.
Learning about different perspectives from the same time period is invaluable and exactly the kind of thing I look for when I pick up a memoir, especially when it deals with topics like historical racism, social, and political issues that I (as a white Welsh woman born in the ’80s) am very far removed from.
Having said that, not all of my favourite memoirs deal with these kind of issues.
Sometimes they’re just well-written and give me a chance to learn more about people I find interesting. Miss O’Dell let me dive into one of my favourite time periods for rock & roll music – the ’60s – and see how some of my favourite musicians (The Beatles) adjusted to the changing times. Patti Smith’s Just Kids taught me more about the early life of one of my favourite singers and her time as a poor artist in 1970s New York.
It has to be more than just the standard ‘celebrity biography’ (Tina Fey/Amy Poehler/Drew Barrymore/Mindy Kaling, etc.) though. For a memoir to really resonate with me, it has to sound like it came from a writer and have more depth, layers, and meaning than just a rundown of life events.
While memoir takes up a good majority of my non-fiction reading, I have been trying to branch out into other areas recently.
In a similar vein to what I look for in a memoir, I’m always on the lookout for a book that can teach me something about history that my school failed to mention.
As a teacher, I feel that it’s my duty to not continue to spew false whitewashed stories to future generations. I didn’t learn about colonialism in school. I didn’t learn about slavery. And while many say that it would be damaging for young people to learn about the horrors of their ancestors, I believe it’s important we learn about our past mistakes.
I love a book that helps me to keep learning about the world and how we got to this point. I don’t usually like a book that’s too textbooky. But as long as the information is clear and concise and, again, can make an impact, it’s sure to become a favourite.