Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Writing on Wednesday - Books I (You?) Need to Read

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.

  1. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
  2. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
  3. Arctic Dreams (or anything) by Barry Lopez
  4. Walking the Wrack Line: On Tidal Shifts and What Remains by Barbara Hurd
  5. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
  6. The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley
  7. The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Erlich
  8. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  9. The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson
  10. The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
  11. War by Sebastian Junger
  12. Raising California by John McPhee
  13. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
  14. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Kong
  15. Land of Little Rain by Mary Austen
  16. Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White
  17. Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown
  18. A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
  19. West with the Night by Beryl Markham
  20. Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas
  21. 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!


  1. Here's to reaching to the ceiling and beyond! These lists always give me so much anxiety because they remind me that there is much work left to do ("Miles to go before I sleep...") This is a great list, and I would include James Baldwin and Joan Didion, two essay masters. I'd add The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate. I'd probably add memoirists Frank McCourt and Mary Karr, too, though I didn't love Lit as much as I loved The Liar's Club. Oh, and Anne Lamott, who is salve for my tenuous writer's self esteem.

  2. Terrific additions, Alexis! Most of those would be on the list if I made it another time. You're so right - there's so much wonderful writing out there to soak our brains - and it's so much more delicious than most current popular entertainment ;-) As for anxiety - every time I start to feel uninformed because I haven't read something, I remind myself that the people touting THAT title haven't read a lot of things that I consider to be classics. So we pool resources and learn - and we should never ever be bored.

  3. Sadly, my own non-fiction reading is pretty much limited to physics and weird science, but I just wanted to share a personal note about the power of narrative non-fiction. Into Thin Air fell into my lap years ago, exactly at the time when I least thought I'd relate to it. I was past my angsty years and had settled into my role of being a new mom with all the boredom that the role represented. Yet the book haunted me and I thought about it for days until ultimately, it influenced my acceptance of my own only-slightly-off-the-beaten-path in life. Such is the power of well-told story!

    1. Jennifer, why in the world is that sad? Would that more people read science! Into Thin Air IS a haunting book.