- haul (verb) pull or drag with effort or force.
- retreat (noun) an act of moving back or withdrawing.
- familiar (adj) well known from long or close association.
- ‘books will out’ – This comes from the phrase ‘truth will out’ which means to show that you believe the truth will always be discovered.
- bereaved (adj) be deprived of a close relation or friend through their death.
- rawness (adj) painfully open, as a sore or wound.
- monitor (verb) observe and check the progress or quality of (something) over a period of time.
- unconsciously (adverb) without realizing or being aware of one’s actions.
- corporation (noun) a large company or group of companies authorized to act as a single entity and recognized as such in law.
- ‘hit and miss’ (adj phrase) If something is hit-and-miss, it is only occasionally of good quality, on time, accurate.
- ‘next to nothing’ (idiom) very little.
- sensationalism (noun) the presentation of stories in a way that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy.
- definitive (adj) done or reached decisively and with authority.
- indefinite (adj) lasting for an unknown or unstated length of time.
- murky (adj) dark and gloomy, especially due to thick mist.
- authorial (noun) the maker of anything; creator; originator.
- feat (noun) an achievement that requires great courage, skill, or strength.
- kettle of fish (idiom) a different matter.
- titular (adj) relating to or denoted by a title.
- turmoil (noun) a state of great disturbance, confusion, or uncertainty.
- enter the picture (idiom) to become involved in something.
The non-fiction I tend to read seems to be about the darker side of life. Not that I’m against humour or hopeful stories, it’s just that, in times of darkness, I retreat to darkness. The longer I stay there the more familiar I become. The less unknown it is. The less I fear.
In these uncertain times, where it is recommended we haul ourselves up in our towers, we are relying on sources of entertainment we would otherwise take for granted. Yes, we have Netflix. Yes, we have the Internet. But let’s not forget that the majority of the TV shows and films you’re watching are based on books. Books came first. Books will out.
So, here are the first five books in my list of Top 10 Non-Fiction books.
10. We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
(Harper Collins, London, 2014. Page 11-13)
Everybody should read this book. But more importantly – everyone can read this book. It is a slim, pamphlet-like book, a ‘modified version’ of a TED talk Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave about feminism. Everyone can read it firstly because of its length (you could finish it in one sitting) but also because Adichie’s language is so accessible, her ideas so grounded, her experience so moving, you’ll forget the length and just keep turning the pages. Here’s a section I really love:
‘Now here’s a story from my childhood.
When I was in primary school in Nsukka, a university town in south-eastern Nigeria, my teacher said at the beginning of the term that she would give the class a test and whoever got the highest score would be class monitor. Class monitor was a big deal. If you were class monitor you would write down the names of noise-makers each day, which was heady enough power on its own…it was an exciting prospect to the nine-year-old me. I very much wanted to be class monitor. And I got the highest score on the test.
Then, to my surprise, my teacher said the monitor had to be a boy. She had forgotten to make that clear earlier; she assumed it was obvious. A boy had the second-highest score on the test. And he would be monitor.
What was even more interesting is that this boy was a sweet, gentle soul who had no interest in patrolling the class with a stick. While I was full of ambition to do so….If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal. If only boys are made class monitor, then at some point we will all think, even if unconsciously, that the class monitor has to be a boy. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, it starts to seem ‘natural’ that only men should be heads of corporations.’
You can also watch the whole TED talk below. If you’re learning English, this would be a fantastic opportunity to buy the book and use a subtitled version of the video to check what you understood/check pronunciation etc:
9. The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance – Anders Rydell
(Penguin Random House, New York, 2015. Page 13)
‘In this war, books would not be so much a casualty as a weapon. The Nazis wanted to defeat their enemies not only on the battlefield but also in thought. This victory would endure long after the grave, after the genocides and the Holocaust. Not only to wipe out, but also to justify their actions. It was not by destroying the literary and cultural heritage of their enemies that the Nazis intended to prevail – rather, by stealing, owning, and twisting it, and by turning their libraries and archives, their history, inheritance, and memory against themselves. To capture the right to write their history. It was a concept that set in motion the most extensive book theft in the history of the world.’
There are so many books about World War II that you could spend an entire lifetime reading them all. There are so many areas to look at, the history is so vast and detailed. But Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves sheds light on a story I had never heard before. I knew about the horror of the book burnings – in which the Nazis obliterated an entire history and civilization – but I didn’t know about the Nazi’s intellectual war.
In The Book Thieves, Rydell draws upon thousands of archives and first-hand experiences, exploring the way the Nazis used literature as propaganda. He shows the looting of the Jews’ treasured books, which resulted in libraries that fit the Nazi’s ideology. This terrifying portrait of Europe under Nazi rule (or attack) exposes worrying truths about our own current political climate. Where histories are re-written, truths obscured and lies perpetuated. It is devastating enough to wage war upon a people, it is quite another to wage war upon their minds.
8. On Writing – Stephen King
(Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010)
We all know Stephen King. He has created some of the most memorable characters and stories such as Carrie, The Shining, It, Misery, Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Cujo, Salem’s Lot, etc. I’m the first to admit that Stephen King can be ‘hit and a miss’. He, himself, has said as much. Which is why I would argue that Stephen King’s best book to date is On Writing.
The book is split into two parts: CV (which acts as King’s writing autobiography) and Toolbox (which is King’s advice about writing). Even for those who have no interest in writing personally, this book is a fascinating insight into a prolific writer’s life. We see his early days teaching English and surviving on next to nothing, whilst trying to write his novel in his cramped caravan. We’re with him on the day he receives the telegram telling him Carrie is to be published. We hear the details of King’s alcoholism and drug-abuse, churning out novels such as Cujo that he has very little memory of.
This is a story of survival – King sobers up and continues writing. This is also a story of persistence. I believe some people are born to be something specific. King was born to be a writer. It is in his blood, bones, flesh. It is not a desire to write, for him, but a necessity. He has to write. I find that quality infectious. Perhaps this is why I keep returning to the book.
7. One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley – Carol Ann Lee
(Mainstream Publishing Company, Great Britain, 2010)
All you have to do is simply utter the words ‘Moors Murders’ and the people of the United Kingdom know what you mean. The story is infamous, mainly because the murderers were a couple that killed five children and buried four of them on the Yorkshire Moors. At the time – and to this day – people couldn’t believe that a woman could do these terrible things.
This woman was Myra Hindley. The subject of over a hundred books, TV shows, documentaries, podcasts, etc. Very few writers have managed to succeed in portraying Hindley’s life and crimes accurately and without sensationalism. Very few have managed to look at both sides of the evidence to come to a definitive – or in some cases indefinite – explanation to what happened. Carol Ann Lee is one of the writers that has succeeded, and, in my opinion, she is the writer that has succeeded beyond expectation.
The case of the Moors Murders itself is murky, bleak and, like a lot of true crime stories, sad. Carol Ann Lee doesn’t so much resist this but remains objective. The question of Hindley being a ‘monster’ is one that has gone around since she was arrested. People have argued she has been unfairly treated because she was a woman. People have argued the opposite. Carol Ann Lee, in the most excellent piece of writing about the case I have ever read, brings all of the information together, pulls away the emotion and tells us what we all know to be true.
6. A Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
(Harper Collins, London, 2012)
I read this book on a plane ride from Cardiff to Edinburgh. The journey only lasts an hour and I’m a slow reader but I was captivated. This devastating memoir about Joan Didion losing her husband, John, spoke to me very personally. My father had died a year before I read this book and over that time I had been resistant to stories of grief.
Misery doesn’t love company because company makes other’s miseries seem less important. But this book very much spoke to me. That’s because this wasn’t some authorial voice discussing grief like Freud or other psychologists but something deeply personal. Didion is moving through her grief at the point of writing just as I was at the point of reading.
This is a book anyone who is grieving should read, yes, but also a book everyone should read. One thing I struggled with was that the people around me didn’t know what to do with me. They didn’t know what to say or do so they simply became invisible. This was not helpful. I’d have preferred somebody say something wrong. Then I’d be allowed to show some emotion, have some feeling. So I’d recommend everyone read this book. Especially those that haven’t lost someone close to them or suffered with grief. Consider this book as your gateway. As your chance to be there for someone.
Stay tuned for part 2 in which I review non-fiction books about adoption, neurosurgery and reading.
Please share any of your own book recommendations in the comments below. If you have any questions regarding the vocabulary, simply send me a message or ask me a question in the comments below. Or you can email us at Intrepid English.
This blog was written and recorded by Intrepid English Teacher, Tom.