I’m going to ‘fess up: I don’t read enough nonfiction for pleasure.

Fiction has always been more compelling to me. The fantasy, the adventure, the imagination, the characters – this is the stuff of storytelling.

But there are some exceptional books of non-fiction and memoir that trump my fandom of fiction. Here’s my top 4 picks for NF and memoir. These books are not only incredibly compelling, but they also THRASH my usual choices in fiction. Why? Because the narratives are honest and real. Because life is the ultimate story. Because the writing is just so damn good! 

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (Riverhead, 2011)

The Psychopath Test: A journey through the madness industry by Jon Ronson, nonfiction, 2011

I plan to review this book at a later date, so keep your eyes peeled for my review. For now, I will just say that Ronson’s latest book is smart and chock full of self-deprecating humor.

From the author of The Men Who Stare At Goats, this examination of madness, psychiatry, psychology, and psychopathy leaves the reader with more questions than answers as Ronson wonders, “Who determines madness, and what does it look like?”

Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff (Mariner Books, 2009)

Beautiful Boy by David Sheff, a nonfiction book about his son's meth addictionI can’t help but select stories of drug abuse and addiction when I want NF for personal reading. It’s a life so drastically different than mine… or so I believe. Then a great memoir of addiction, one that stands out from the pack of celebrity drugging and teen overdose, reveals how everyday decisions and chance encounters can result in a lifetime of addiction.

This memoir is about a father dealing with his son’s meth habit. It’s often gruesome but mostly heart-breaking. Sheff balances the scientific information – how addiction works at a chemical level, symptoms of withdrawal and more – and what I like to call “advice columnist” information – how to handle a child on drugs, how to find clinics, how to say “no”. This book is about parental love and learning to let your child go.  It’s also proof that a good parent can’t help but rescue their child, even if it ultimately harms them.

Curiously, Sheff’s son published a book about his addiction, too. It’s not as good, but it’s worth the read if you want to learn more about Nic and hear his side of the story.

Appetites: Why Women Want by Caroline Knapp (Counterpoint, 2011)

Appetites: Why Women Want by Caroline Knapp, a memoir about anorexia and hungerI read this book for a college course called “Psychology of Women” and have since fell in love with all of Knapp’s books. Part self-help memoir, part cultural studies text, Knapp examines her own eating disorder (anorexia) within the context of all female appetite: want, need and desire. Mother-daughter relationships are analyzed. Feminist texts and health studies are cited. Questions are raised that suggest all women struggle with appetite though the form our hunger takes will manifest in diverse ways, though often dependent on socio-economic and environmental circumstances.

I rarely cry when I read and this book had me in tears. Even if you’ve never struggled with any of the health issues raised in this book, you can’t help but relate to (and find proof in your own life of) Knapp’s conclusions about hunger and appetite.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azai Nafisi, a memoir about teaching literature in IranThis memoir is proof that books are powerful. The right story can profoundly impact one’s life; a fictional narrative shapes a personal narrative and suddenly the world is different. The right book matters because it changes us, and this is the danger of books that certain governments seek to suppress. Whether by banning or burning or legislative conning, books are destroyed for the ideas they contain. For two years, Azar Nafisi secretly gathers a group of young women together to read forbidden Western classics. Seven women from diverse backgrounds read James, Austen, Fitzgerald, and, yes, Nabokov, sharing personal stories and aspirations against the backdrop of revolutionary Iran.

I am lucky to have the freedom to read any book I choose, but I am even luckier when someone gives me a book that makes me think. And so I am grateful for educators like Nafisi who share intelligent books with new readers, even when it dangerous to do so. I am moved by her words to encourage others: keep reading.

Those are my picks, what are yours? Which NF and memoir titles are your favorites? Please contribute to my shortlist in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Reading Non-Fiction for Pleasure

  1. Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch-22 are pleasure reading for me in fiction, otherwise I stick with self-help books, Dr.Wayne Dwyer, The Erroneous Zones, was my introduction to psychology and I haven’t stopped yet!

      • Wayne Dyer is one of the most successful self-help authors who built a career on popularizing psychology for mass market trade paperback. Karen isn’t the only one whose introduction to pop psychology started with Wayne Dyer in the 1970s.

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