The Best Literary Non-Fiction

Whilst I am still in easy reading mode, a girl needs to have a plan for when her brain gets back from vacation.ย  In the months to come I’ll be making a concerted effort with my writing, and it struck me that I’ve never systematically read through the sort of non-fiction that I like and would like to be producing. And so I’ve been making a list of books to read attentively between now and the spring. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
Joan Didion – Live and Learn

This is a collection of Didion’s essays. I’ve heard so much about her – and so much of it good – that she is the main essayist I’d like to study. Not many women get away with writing about politics, but Didion seems to.

Justine Picardie – My Mother’s Wedding Dress; The Life and Afterlife of Clothes

Such an interesting topic, under the banner of ‘Things and What They Mean’. I love the way this topic combines both private and cultural history.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich – Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

As I have often complained here, I struggle with biography but refuse to give up the fight. I like the way this book combines the stories of both famous and obscure women and mixes history with gender politics.

Candia McWilliam – What To Look For In Winter; A Memoir of Blindness

This should be a very stylish and poignant memoir – with a happy ending as McWilliam undergoes innovative surgery to get her sight back.

Robert MacFarlane – The Wild Places

This man seems to be the literary non-fiction star of the moment with his new book, The Old Ways. I’m starting on a previous release, but one that still exemplifies MacFarlane’s particular combination of nature, history and personal experience.

Carola Hicks – The King’s Glass

An art historian tells the stories of the stained glass windows in King’s College Chapel. I think good art history is hard to find, so I am interested to see Hick’s narrative strategies.

Deborah Davis – Gilded; How Newport Became America’s Richest Resort

I read Davis’s book on Truman Capote’s black and white ball and loved it. She’s very good at giving scandal a glossy veneer and making it seem like serious reading material.

Jackie Kay – Red Dust Road

This memoir received very good reviews a couple of years ago. Plus I do like it when poets write prose.

Gordon Turnbull – Trauma

A behind the scenes look at the way that doctors help the victims of post traumatic stress disorder, in the aftermath of events like 9/11, the London bombings, the Gulf wars and political hostage situations. Right up my street.

Brian Dillon – Tormented Hope; Nine Hypochondriac Lives

You’ll see from the side bar that I’d begun this last week and it was really excellent. But it’s not quite the book for now, so I’m holding off reading it for a little while. But the hypochondriacs under discussion – including Charlotte Bronte, Florence Nightingale and Andy Warhol – made for a fascinating list.

If you know of any other really good literary non-fiction books, do let me know. I’m more than happy to extend the list!




32 thoughts on “The Best Literary Non-Fiction

  1. I can’t offer any suggestions because I know that I don’t read enough non-fiction myself. There was a time when I always had a volume of letters or diaries by my bedside, but even that is a habit I seem to have given up lately. I keep promising myself that I will start to read through one of the many volumes of essays I possess. It seems like a nice easy way to wean myself away from fiction, even if for only a little while. But, it never gets past the promise. So, I’m afraid I can’t offer any help. But I am going to be looking eagerly to see what suggestions Other people come up with.

    • Oh I quite understand. I need to have a far more active brain to read non-fiction than fiction. Right now, I’m definitely on the comfort reads, and probably will be for a little while! But there are undoubtedly some books of non-fiction that pull off the amazing feat of being as gripping as fictional narrative. Not many, but definitely some.

  2. I would highly recommend “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers. It follows the true story of an American Arab living in New Orleans during the devastation and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It’s both sobering and uplifting and made me greatly admire the Innocence Project.

    • Dave Eggars is an excellent suggestion. I’ve heard nothing but praise for his work, and I get the impression he’s quite innovative in what he does. Thank you for that!

  3. The Year Of Magical Thinking by Didion was one of the best things I read in 2010 (or was it 2009?). I’ve been meaning to read Blue Nights, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Your list sounds splendid. Looking forward to the posts they will ignite.

    • I’ve started the Joan Didion essays and found them very intriguing so far. I need to get several more under the belt before I dare do anything like review her, though! But I’m very glad to finally be reading her at last.

  4. I think this is one of my favourite genres as well. I’m especially interested in Picardie’s book and would like to start reading it right away. Thanks for sharing this list.

  5. As you say you like it when poets turn to prose, here’s three books of nature writing released by poets just this year – Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, Strands by Jean Sprackland, and Otter country by Miriam Darlington. Following a tradition that started, I think with Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1975. It is a type of writing that seems to appeal to the poet (and especially the female poet it appears.)

    • Neil, thank you so much for those excellent suggestions. I’ve been meaning to get to Annie Dillard for years, but never quite made it. Still, now is definitely the time, and I’ve heard nothing but praise for Kathleen Jamie. So she will definitely be high on the list.

    • Alex, I’m so glad to hear you say that! I skimmed through the most recent book of hers to be released, the one on the Dutch old master painting of the bridal couple (with the bride looking heavily pregnant) and feared it might be a little dry. So I’m delighted it was her style in particular that you enjoyed.

  6. I went through a phase in the mid-80’s where I read everything Didion had published. Didn’t read her again until I read Blue Nights earlier this year. I forgot how much I liked her prose style. I don’t always agree with what she has to say, but I love how she says it. I’ve added several of these to my TRB list: McWilliam, Hicks, Turnball, Dillon.

    • Cam, I’ve begun on the Didion and finding her essays very interesting thus far. And I do hope you enjoy any of the books that tempt you from the list. Do say, won’t you?

  7. You’ve got to, got to read ‘Map of My Dead Pilots’ by Coleen Mondor. I know, I know, saying you MUST is probably the kiss of death for a rec, but it’s SO GOOD I can’t resist. It’s a book about cold weather flying and Mondor’s time working at a notorious air delivery company, but it’s also about the myths we create because like stories more than truth. And there are some so affecting passages in there. And the mix of subjects is great. And…read it!

  8. I honestly am not sure whether or not I have commented on your new-found unemployment or not – I think I may have on facebook only to say this *could* open up a world of opportunity for you and actually allow your body the time of recovery and strength building it could use..but things have been a little nuts in our lives and maybe I just thought those things. At any rate, I have been thinking about you! Joan Didion is one of my absolute favorite nonfiction writers and I can’t wait to hear what you think of her work. Also, I really enjoyed your review of The Prince of Tides and now, I agree with your assessment of his language. I no longer consider him my favorite writer but when I was nineteen? He blew me away. And his descriptions of Tom’s daughters? And the beach? Stunning!

    • Oh thank you, dear Courtney! You are very kind. I feel absolutely sure that if I’d read Pat Conroy at 19, I would have felt exactly the same – so much passion and sparkly brilliance in his narrative voice! I’ll certainly read him again. Sending love to you, too – this is clearly a moment when the planets are aligning to make the world a little crazy…

    • You’re right! It really should have gone on the list. I have it here, by my side in fact, as I’m typing. So it is on the top of the pile, if not actively on the list! ๐Ÿ™‚ I love the idea of combining memoir and criticism – one of my absolute favouritest things, so you sell it well!

  9. Sounds like a great plan! ๐Ÿ™‚ I love Joan Didion and have read some of her essays–would love to know what you make of her. And I have the MacFarlane sitting on my desk at work as a matter of fact. I’m not sure I have any titles to add–I’m taking suggestions off your list this time! But I know I am getting into nature writing and I want to try John McPhee–he might be worth checking out–I plan to anyway.

    • You have the MacFarlane? How about that? I would love to know what you make of him. I’ve read a couple of the Didion essays and enjoyed them very much. She’s not quite what I expected (always interesting when that happens) and I’m looking forward to reading more, particularly her personal essays. I love your new interest in nature writing – we’ll be able to share lots of recommendations there, hurray!

  10. I’m so glad you posted this list, because there are some titles there I’m going to investigate further. As you know, I love this genre! Have you ever read Nicholson Baker’s book U&I? I’d love to know what you thought about that. Also Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is fabulous. Any essay collection by David Foster Wallace is great. Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water? Zadie Smith’s Changing My MInd? Darin Strauss’s Half a Life? Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days? Maggie Nelson’s Bluets? Just a few possibilities that come to mind ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland

  12. Your post prompted me to start MacFarlane’s ‘The Wild Places’ which had been languishing on my Kindle for some time. I’m very glad I did – the beauty of the prose and the places is breathtaking.

  13. Pingback: Reading Plans 2013 | Tales from the Reading Room

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