Whether you consider yourself “a reader” or not, these non-fiction books will change the way you view the world, or at the very least, they’ll make you want to reexamine your own experience – whether it be your job, your home, or the interactions you have with the people in your life, these authors will shake up your vantage point a little. Some of them will do it while making you laugh out loud. Without further ado, my top five picks for best non-fiction books to check out before you kick it…
1. Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (2011)
As a kid, I was convinced I’d become a chef one day. When I was six years old, I assembled pancakes out of flour and orange juice (we’d run out of milk), and proudly presented these to my bleary-eyed and mightily confused parents. Of course, my dream never materialized – I became an adult, and as so often happens, eventually realized that being a chef is a lot less glamorous than it looks. When I stumbled across Blood, Bones and Butter, I had no idea who Gabrielle Hamilton was. Turns out, she’s one of the most famous chefs in Manhattan. Her restaurant, Prune, is a favorite among critics and hungry patrons. Her memoirs do an incredible job of transporting us back to her childhood, introducing us to the rousing soirées her parents used to throw, and to her rebellious teenage years of coke-fueled nights and shoplifting days. And then, of course, her dream of opening a successful restaurant, propelled by her love of food and unconditional determination.
What sets this memoir apart from all of the other top chef autobiographies out there is Hamilton’s writing style. Hamilton has an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, and it shows. BB&B is possibly the most beautifully written memoir I’ve read to date. Whenever I feel low or uninspired, her story and drive fill me with a thirst for action, which makes this the perfect read for anyone who’s ever wanted to build an empire of their own.
2. Into the Wild by John Krakauer (1996)
If there’s one thing I love more than food, it’s travel. And I don’t mean the kind of “Let’s hit up a beach resort for a week” travel, but the kind of travel that will disorient you, that fills you with feelings you didn’t know existed, that introduces you to sights, sounds and smells you’ve never experienced before. The kind of travel that makes you reconsider everything, your whole life, your goals, your outlook, that makes you want to start fresh somewhere completely new with only a few bucks and a backpack. If you’re like me, you will have most likely already read Into the Wild, or at the very least, you will have watched the (pretty damn incredible) Sean Penn movie adaptation with Emile Hirsch.
Into the Wild is the story of Christopher McCandless who, soon after graduating college, decides to leave his entire life behind, cutting all ties with his family and friends, in order to explore the Alaskan wilderness. In addition to examining our place in society, materialism and Wanderlust, this book unearths feelings every nomad has buried deep down. I tend to go back to Wild whenever I’m going through a phase of dissatisfaction, or whenever I’ve lived in a place for a couple of years and am starting to feel that itch again. The majority of my friends can’t relate to my urge to explore and leave routine behind (why fix it if it ain’t broke?), and so knowing that there are others out there, others like Christopher McCandless, makes me feel like I’m not alone. And isn’t that kind of the whole point?
3. Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson (1999)
Taking us from somber to side-splitting is Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country. Bryson’s my favorite travel writer – his books make me laugh out. And I don’t mean a soft chuckle, I mean proper belly laughs that will make my fellow passengers on the subway eye me suspiciously. Even though I love all of Bryson’s travel memoirs (Notes from a Small Island, Neither Here Nor There, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, A Walk in the Woods), this one always stands out for me. Maybe it’s because I was fifteen when we first moved to the US, which meant I initially experienced it as an outsider, before really getting immersed in the culture and eventually becoming a part of it. The outsider’s perspective is fleeting (soon enough, you get used to the way things work), and Bryson captures the interim beautifully. Whether he’s talking about infomercials, breakfast pizza or the batshit crazy war on drugs, Bryson pokes fun at the little idiosyncrasies of life in America. A must-read for anyone who’s ever felt like like both a native and an outsider in their own country.
4. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (2005)
Malcolm Gladwell is the undisputed king of popular science. His research covers psychology, behavior, and marketing. Gladwell’s popularity is rooted in his ability to take complex topics, like behavioral psychology and stereotyping, and to then break these down into bite-sized data. A few grumpy critics have argued that his claims are too bold for the thin evidence he provides. But really, if you’re trying to hit that elusive intersection between science and airport literature, you really have to choose your battles.
Flimsy evidence or not, Gladwell does cover a wide range of behavioral topics and brings these closer to the interested masses. And since I genuinely believe the world would be a much better place if everyone tried to understand each other’s motivations a little better, that alone makes Blink worth reading.
5. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon
Just kidding – I couldn’t make it past the first ten pages.
5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X (1965)
Some of us living in our comfortable Western bubbles think of racism as something more or less extinct, something abstract which possibly exists out there somewhere, but not really though. Well, fuck. Just look at some of this year’s headlines. Now more relevant than ever, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is an examination of the many facets of man. Malcolm X was a chameleon, changing from a criminal into an activist into a humanist into a martyr. Thanks in large part to his memoirs, Malcolm X has become a key influencer on several generations of black men and women.
This book follows Malcolm Little’s life from his childhood to his imprisonment and, ultimately, his work as a spokesman. What makes Malcolm X so important beyond its subject matter is the fact that it forces its readers to think about the author as an unreliable narrator, and of history as something that’s – at least to a certain degree - subjective. Autobiographies are no more than a collection of memories, and memories fade and shapeshift over time. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a fascinating, contradictory character study and an essential read for anyone living on this planet (especially this kook), now and for many years to come.