BANDing together to promote nonfiction: the discussion begins

If you haven’t heard by now, something very cool has happened in the book blogging world. A few months ago at the annual Book Bloggers’ convention in New York City a few of my favorite book bloggers decided to “band” together help promote nonfiction. Calling themselves the Blogging Association of Nonfiction Devotees or “BAND”, the group has not only launched a page on Tumblr but each member has agreed to host a monthly forum to discuss a particular topic associated with nonfiction. Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness was kind enough to host the inaugural forum. This month the folks from BAND have asked the following: What is one of your favorite types of nonfiction to read? OR What is one of your favorite nonfiction topics to read about ?

After mulling over these two questions for several days it’s really hard for me to answer either one. Perhaps the best way is for me to talk a little bit about my life as a reader.

Oddly enough, just before I graduated from college and right after graduation I read almost exclusively fiction. Maybe I was seeking some sort of escape, maybe I was young and feeling introspective or maybe I was just curious about all those “great novels”, but most of my reading during that period of my life happened to be fiction. For several years I burned through whatever decent fiction I could get my hands on. Starting with an old Bantam paperback edition of The Grapes of Wrath I would go on to read the The Tin Drum, The Color Purple, Invisible Man, On the Road, Ironweed, One Hundred Years of Solitude and anything else that looked good, sounded good or figured ought to be read by a guy like myself. After being introduced to the works of Paul Bowles or Ernest Hemingway by a buddy of mine I eagerly devoured anything by the two great mid-twentieth century American authors. Mine was a reading life, and it was pretty much all fiction.

Slowly though, I started to replace my diet of fiction with nonfiction. In college I studied political science and international relations, so I guess many of the nonfiction books I read my first years after college dealt with Latin America, the Third World or Eastern Europe. I enjoyed political writers of a more progressive or anticolonialist orientation, authors such as Michael Parenti, Eduardo Galeano, Franz Fanon and Noam Chomski. With the societies of Eastern Europe and Russia changing before our eyes I found myself reading The Fall of Yugoslavia by Misha Glenny, Parting with Illusions by Vladamir Posner, The Hole in the Flag by Andrei Codrescu and How We Survived Communism & Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulic.

Not long after this I discovered the world of memoirs. After hearing the buzz surrounding Angela’s Ashes and Shot in the Heart I borrowed copies from my mom and was blown away by both of them. Whenever I would hear a promising new memoirist interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air I would run to the library and place a hold on his/her memoir and eagerly await the book’s availability. Are Your Somebody ?, Ithaka, The Color of Water and Permanent Midnight were all favorites of mine during this period.

I also started reading books about Christianity, but by authors with a more scholarly and less sectarian perspective. A few years earlier I began questioning the traditionally minded evangelical Christianity of my youth. Not long after leaving college I also fell in with a group of progressive mainline Protestant Christians who met regularly at the university near my workplace. They kindly led me to books by Jack Miles, Karen Armstrong and Elaine Pagels. Later I would discover and enjoy similar books by authors such as Bart Ehrman, Martin E. Marty and Marcus Borg. Even today, scholarly yet accessible books about Christianity as well as Judaism and Islam rank among my favorites. Books like these will always be featured on this blog.

Of course, sometime in the not so distant past I developed a liking of books about history, science and current affairs. A few of my favorites that come to mind are Halberstam’s The Fifties, Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant’s The Renaissance and Alex Koltowitz’s There Are No Children Here. Like others, I also enjoy reading “one topic” books such as Coal and Salt in addition to “big picture” books such as Freakonomics, The Logic of Life and Malcolm Gladwell’s best sellers The Tipping Point and Outliers.

While this might explain the kinds of nonfiction I’ve enjoyed reading over the years, what about my current interests ? Tough question, but if I look over my “Best of 2010” and “Best of 2009” lists, as well as my recent reading history, a few things stand out:

  • I enjoy well-written and intelligent narratives about the Middle East. Usually written by journalists or former journalists, books like Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East by Robin Wright, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East by Neil MacFarquhar and Children of Jihad by Jared Cohen not only explore that tumultuous region in detail but also put a human face on its varied inhabitants.
  • I also enjoy “insider-outsider” narratives. I’m a big fan of books by expats who return to their nations of origin in order to write about their experiences. Suketa Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found and Hooman Majd’s The Ayatollah Begs to Differ are prime examples of this kind of nonfiction writing. Saul Bellow, in reality an American Jew and not an expat Israeli, in my opinion came close to this with his 1977 memoir  To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account.
  • I’ll always enjoy intelligent and readable books on the three monotheistic faiths. My goal is to read a wide variety of interpretations and opinions when it comes to books about Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
  • I love well-written and interesting history that’s enjoyable to read.
  • I also love well-written and interesting science that’s enjoyable to read – and helps me understand the world around us. Bonus if it’s about parasites or infectious diseases. I also seem to have a weakness for evolutionary psychology and the study of human consciousness.

Well, there it is. A rambling and long-winded response to a pair of relatively simple questions. In order to give your honest answers, I felt I had no choice but to give you my “reading autobiography” in order to explain things in their fuller context. But then again, maybe I should have taken the easy way out and just answered, “when it comes to nonfiction, I like it all.”

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “BANDing together to promote nonfiction: the discussion begins

  1. I like cultural and physical geography books, but occasionally a sports/running biography. I don’t read them allthat often, but do find them most refreshing and informative. A good cookbook with lots of extra info beyond actual recipes is a frequent favourite.

  2. Great answer, and really fascinating. I love a lot of the kinds of nonfiction you enjoy — one topic books and narratives of the Middle East in particular. Thanks for participating in BAND!

  3. I always look at your blog as heart of all things non fiction ,I tend to read them as I come accross them ,all the best stu

  4. I really like this response: an autobiography through reading. Lots of great titles here, too.

  5. I love your answer, so in depth! And you read such a wide and varied group of topics which is what I love most. When I visit your blog I may have no idea what I’ll find but I know I’ll find something interesting and worth adding to my wish list – whether it’s a viewpoint I agree with or not.

  6. Nice, meaty reply to the discussion question! I just read Marcus Borg’ The Heart of Christianity recently and it was a breath of fresh air for me. I’ll have to look at the Middle East books that you mention. I was looking for an overview book for the area once and picked up Peter Mansfield’s A History of the Middle East – informative, but very dry. As far as infectious diseases, I read both Preston’s The Hot Zone (about Ebola) and Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On (about AIDS) earlier this year, almost back to back. Both of them are good reads – Shilts more than good, it just really immersed me in the events surrounding AIDS arrival and spread in the United States.

    • Thanks !
      I’ve heard good things about And the Band Played On. I haven’t read it but years ago I saw the HBO movie it inspired and rather enjoyed it
      Borg’s Heart of Christianity has been on my to read list for a long time and perhaps your favorable words are enough to make me finally read it.
      Thanks for visiting my blog ! Please drop by often !!

  7. I love geeking out with massive history tomes–I actually recently finished David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, and it was really satisfying. There are so many historical events I want to know more about; if only those books would magically read themselves! Thanks for participating in BAND 🙂

  8. You are most welcome ! It is my pleasure to participate in Band. Have you read Halberstam’s The Fifties ? I highly recommend it !
    I need to geek out on a few massive history tomes myself. I have more than a few sitting unread in my personal library. Perhaps your kind words will inspire to read them !!

  9. Pingback: Misha Glenny explores the dark side of the global economy. | Maphead's Book Blog

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