Books I (You?) Need to Read
by Sheila Boneham
I came across this list of "21 Novels You Need to Read" recently and it got me thinking about several things. For one thing, this particular list is a reminder that we don't all appreciate or even like the same books. My list of 21 (if I could narrow my list that far!) would be very different from the one published, with some overlap - Lonesome Dove is The Great American Novel, so it's on my list, as are several of the others. But not all.
Of course fiction isn't the only literary form, so what about other genres? I love poetry, some genre fiction, some drama. I also adore well-written examples of what has come to be known as creative or narrative nonfiction, adjectives meant to separate such writing from commercial or prescriptive or popular nonfiction. For a lot of people lately, creative nonfiction seems to equate with memoir, and all too many memoirs these days read a bit like (sur)reality television shows for my taste. "Look, it's all about me, poor me, I'm so great, although totally dysfunctional, and everyone else is worse." Don't get me wrong - I love memoirs that bring more to the story than the me who is (perhaps) at the center. (I wrote about this concept on May 23 in "Reflections on Situation, Story, and Me, Me, Me".)
I think, for instance, of Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, a memoir of Williams' mother's losing battle with cancer. What makes the book so much more than many memoirs about illness and death is its position in larger contexts. First, this very personal and mortal battle takes place during a drought that dried up the marshes around the Great Salt Lake and devastated the nesting grounds of thousands of migratory birds. And then there is the vast and terrifying context of high cancer rates in the Utah desert, a legacy of nuclear weapons testing. Or Mark Doty's Dog Years, an exquisitely lyrical memoir that interweaves the the author's responses to personal loss - the decline and death of his long-time partner and of his two beloved elderly dogs - with his response to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, which Doty witnessed.
The world of narrative nonfiction, though, extends far beyond memoir. To my mind, it can be defined as fact- or experience-based prose written with an eye to narrative structure and careful craftsmanship. For subject matter, just look around - it's everywhere. In fact, two books of narrative nonfiction that I enjoyed immensely were on unlikely subjects - Sue Hubbell's Broadsides from the Other Orders: A Book of Bugs and Robert Sullivan's Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Both fascinating!
It's hard to narrow a lifetime of reading to a list of, well, any reasonable number, so this is an off-the-top-of-my-head list of 21 Nonfiction Books I Enjoyed and Maybe You Should Look At (in my rarely humble opinion and in no particular order). A lot of these are older books. They are, in fact, in many cases the books that made me want to write narrative nonfiction, and I'm slowly circling back there now.
- The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
- Arctic Dreams (or anything) by Barry Lopez
- Walking the Wrack Line: On Tidal Shifts and What Remains by Barbara Hurd
- Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
- The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley
- The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Erlich
- Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
- The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson
- The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
- War by Sebastian Junger
- Raising California by John McPhee
- The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
- The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Kong
- Land of Little Rain by Mary Austen
- Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White
- Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown
- A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
- West with the Night by Beryl Markham
- Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas
- The Snow Leopard by Peter Mattheissen
As soon as I finish and leave my desk I'll think of others that should be on the list. So it goes. Please add to the list - my "to read" stack hasn't touched the ceiling yet!