Friday, February 6, 2015

Top 10 Nonfiction Titles

After my post on All The Tea in China, I started thinking about nonfiction. I read a lot of nonfiction. I think I would say that at this point in my life I prefer nonfiction. Not saying that I don't love to get lost in some imaginary world, but I'm a sucker for a book that will both teach and entertain me. So here are my Top 10 favorite nonfiction titles.

1. The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner
I read this book of Weiner's study of happiness and the places it can be found, and then immediately passed the book on to my sisters. The NPR correspondent looks at different scales of happiness and then sets out to visit the places that have been listed the happiest on earth (and a few of the least happy). Not only did the book introduce me to the concept of biophilia, but it made me want to travel to places like Iceland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. His study of the different cultures is fascinating and I walked away thinking a lot about happiness and what really makes me happy in the end.

2. The Hive by Bee Wilson
I picked up this book, subtitled The Story of the Honeybee and Us, randomly in a tiny bookstore in Omaha. I read a lot of natural history books and this one was interesting. I had been wanting to eventually set up my own apiary. This book was so beautifully written and provided such an interesting history of bees that I read it over a two day period. Wilson shows how bees have been intertwined with our politics, sex, life, death, and of course food throughout history. A "bee"utiful book.

3. The History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
The only book on this list that I don't own, but I can't think of a nonfiction title that has more impacted the way I look at the world. Standage looks back through human history through the lens of beverages. Through beer, wine, tea, coffee, spirits, and cola, he traces how humans have been changed as these drinks rose to prominence. His last chapter, about the rising importance of water, changed the way I looked at the environmental movement for the better. One of the best books I've ever read. Period.

4. Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson
Larson might be my favorite nonfiction writer out there. At the insistence of my mother I've read almost all of his books. He makes history come alive in a way that I've never encountered before. Isaac's Storm, about the 1900 hurricane in Galveston, tells three stories. The first is about the actual hurricane, how it arrived and what it destroyed. The second is about Isaac Cline, the meteorologist in Galveston that year and how his lack of understanding caused some of the larger damage. It's through Cline's letters and journals that we get the most intimate picture of the catastrophe. And the last story is the story of meteorology itself, from a bunch of guesswork to a somewhat scientific study. All three stories wrap together to make for one exciting and informative read.

5. Longitude by Dava Sobel
This is really a story about sea travel, about the difficulties of sea travel, and about the perfect device that managed to make it less difficult. For centuries sea farers could tell with some accuracy where they were latitudinally but they had no idea what longitude they were at. They could tell how close to the equator they were, but not how far east or west. It was a perilous issue. This book chronicles the invention of the chronometer, which finally allowed sailors the chance to know where in the world they really were. A short, elegant read for anyone interested in travel, history, or inventions.

6. The Medici Giraffe by Marina Belozerskaya
Throughout history, animals have been used by man. Some for food, some for work, and some (as this book discusses) for status. This well researched and beautifully written book looks at how people have used exotic animals as symbols of power and status. It chronicles the early animal trade where exotics were brought back to live in private menageries or paraded down the streets for the people's pleasure. I had never really thought about how animals had been used that way until I realized how often animals are still given as gifts to heads of state. An eye-opening book.

7. The Road of Dreams by Bruce Junek
One of the more obscure titles on this list, although I have several friends who had read this travelogue before I had. The book follows Bruce Junek and his wife Tass Thacker as they bicycle around the world. I've read many "around the world" books but this one was the first to really feel like the authors were getting heavily into the cultures surrounding them. Focusing mostly on North America, Europe, and Asia, this book gave me my first glimpse into traveling lightly yet immersing oneself into a place. I was spellbound by the read as has everyone I've ever lent the book to.

8. Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson
After I started scuba diving, I started reading a bit about the history of the pursuit and about successful and unsuccessful dives. Of all the books I've read though, none of them kept me on the edge of my seat like this true story of a group of divers, working on a U-Boat they discovered off the coast of the US. Their tales of the dives they take to discover the identity of the sub and to explore it are gripping. While reading the last chapter I literally forgot to breathe and ended up taking gasping breaths as I flipped pages. Incredibly exciting reading.

9. You Just Don't Understand by Deborah Tannen
This is hands down one of the best books I've ever read about human communication. Tannen explores how and why men and women seem to speak differently. Giving clear examples she shows what each sex is trying to convey in their discussions. While I'll admit that not every woman or man fits a stereotype, this book really changed the way I look at why I say the things I say and what I really mean.  It shaped the way I speak and the way I listen.

10. Rowing to Latitude by Jill Fredston
I've read a lot of books about swimmers and rowers lately. I'm not sure what about the water fascinates me so much but I've been smitten. This book follows Jill Fredston and her husband as they row (as in rowboat) around some of the coldest and inhospitable places on Earth. In winter Fredston is an avalanche rescuer in Alaska. In summer, she and her husband row around the edges of Greenland, Norway, Alaska... to name a few. The writing is beautiful (I copied out tons of quotes), the locations are fascinating, and the interactions between the couple and the world around them makes me want to spend more time outdoors. Great read.