On Reading Non-Fiction

I set a couple of reading-related goals at the start of this year. One was to read over 50 books in 2020 (spoiler: thanks to nine weeks on furlough, I’m most of the way there already). Another was to read more non-fiction.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before but after I graduated in mid-2015, I stopped reading like I was trying to swallow books whole. Spending three years reading things you have to read, and being forced to persevere when you don’t enjoy them (looking at you, The Well-Beloved), can make it all a lot less fun. As I slowly regained my appetite it was for easy-going books; the straightforward crime thrillers, the rom-coms, the books I’d loved as a teenager. They were easy to swallow, mostly light-hearted, and almost entirely fiction. But now I’m thoroughly back in the zone I’ve been trying to broaden my reading horizons.

Non-fiction is a pretty broad definition for something that has myriad sub-genres of its own, and when you’re trying to find a place to start, it can seem impenetrable. Do I want to read histories? Travelogues? Biographies and memoirs? Should I dabble in academia or ponder philosophy? Do I need some self-help? (Undoubtedly.) Eventually I remembered a quote I’d seen online years ago, and which I tracked down for this post.

books about everything

I don’t know who said it, but it sounds perfect to me. So here are a few non-fiction books I’ve picked up and read this year – I’ve discussed a few of them in Recently Read Books posts, but I hope you enjoy them all grouped together. There are a few on my to-read list that I’ve added at the bottom too.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? – Dr Tony Bleetman

A memoir by an air ambulance doctor, it discusses the tricky logistics and emotional toll of the job.

Why I picked it up: I noticed it on display at my local library because all things medicine fascinate me.

How entertaining and accessible was it? It was easy enough to read and I found it super interesting. The only times it lagged for me were in discussions about the technical parts of helicopter flying; it’s not nearly as interesting to me as the doctor side of things.

Did I learn anything? I learnt that I probably couldn’t hack it as an air ambulance doctor. I also learnt that there is no NHS provision for air ambulances and they rely on charity funding to do their life-saving work – reason to donate next time you see them in Aldi.

Notes On a Nervous Planet/Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

I’m grouping these together, as I did in my latest Recently Read Books post. Reasons to Stay Alive is a memoir about Haig’s own struggles with depression and anxiety, whereas Notes on a Nervous Planet is about how modern life makes us all stressed.

Why I picked it up: I’m interested in mental health, and I heard they were good. I listened to the audiobook of Notes on a Nervous Planet and read the ebook of Reasons to Stay Alive, both through an app from my library, which I recommend checking out if you miss going there in person.

How entertaining and accessible was it? Both books were thoughtful without being heavy, and explained things thoroughly and simply. They’re split into tiny sections and would be great as reference books for anyone going through it.

Did I learn anything? Turns out all those horrible feelings I had at the start of lockdown were Anxiety! I copied a lot of quotes into my journal so I can see them every day and be reminded that other people have been through much worse than I have.

The Body – Bill Bryson

A biology bible. Each chapter discusses a different aspect of the human body, from blood, brains and bones to sickness and death.

Why I picked it up: I borrowed this from my mum after giving it to her for Christmas (a sneaky trick that happens a lot in our family). I’ve read Bryson before and know he can write in an engaging but accessible way, and inject a little humour too.

How entertaining and accessible was it? Very, on both sides. It’s a hefty book and I did read other things between chapters as my brain can’t absorb that much information for hours on end. But it’s an excellent deep dive with a lot of fun facts and I really did enjoy it.

Did I learn anything? An awful lot. Some of it came back to me from my biology A-level eight years ago, but some was brand new and fascinating. If you want to learn more about your body, this should be your first port of call.

Jog On – Bella Mackie

Mackie was at a low point in her life when, one day, she put on her trainers and went for a run. This memoir is about how it changed her life.

Why I picked it up: Scrolling through the earlier-mentioned app from my library to hunt for a new book to read, this caught my eye as someone interested in both running and mental health.

How entertaining and accessible was it? It was a little dry in places, but only because there’s so much information about the science behind mental health issues and studies about how moving can help. I found a lot of it, particularly the beginning, relatable to my own running. It’s definitely not a hard book to read and has a lot of great info and inspiration.

Did I learn anything? Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. I kind of knew it, but was in denial because I don’t love exercise. After every chapter I did feel like lacing up my trainers, so that’s something!

Help Me! – Marianne Power

A journalist decides to follow a different self-help book every month in an attempt to lose weight, get rich, find a boyfriend and discover eternal happiness.

Why I picked it up: Again, library app. It looked like fun; I hadn’t read much self-help before so I was interested to see how her experiment would go.

How entertaining and accessible was it? This is the funniest book on this list (Power is Irish and her deadpan mother is one of the best parts). I’d liken it to Yes Man by Danny Wallace, in that it’s a memoir that reads like fiction – if you want to get into non-fiction it would be a great place to start. I was thoroughly entertained and engaged the entire time.

Did I learn anything? Self-help is a business like anything else and if the people writing the books really wanted you to be happy, they’d be giving the secrets away for free. And I’d read anything else Marianne Power writes in a heartbeat.

Next steps in non-fiction

At the start of the year, I should’ve split my “to read” list into fiction and non-fiction. I’ve added a tiny section at the bottom of the page but it’s not enough! Here are a few books that I want to pick up and dive into – each with a summary from Google, because of course I can’t write my own yet…

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men – Caroline Criado-Perez

Data is fundamental to the modern world. From economic development, to healthcare, to education and public policy, we rely on numbers to allocate resources and make crucial decisions. But because so much data fails to take into account gender, because it treats men as the default and women as atypical, bias and discrimination are baked into our systems. And women pay tremendous costs for this bias, in time, money, and often with their lives.

The Squiggly Career – Helen Tupper & Sarah Ellis

Careers are changing; they are no longer linear and there’s no such thing as a ‘job for life’. Squiggly careers, where people jump constantly between roles, industries and locations, are becoming the new normal. Squiggly careers are filled with opportunity and excitement, but they can also be ambiguous and overwhelming if we don’t know how to make the most of them.

The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg

At its core, The Power of Habit contains an exhilarating argument: The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, being more productive, and achieving success is understanding how habits work. As Duhigg shows, by harnessing this new science, we can transform our businesses, our communities, and our lives.

Talking with Psychopaths and Savages – Christopher Berry-Dee

Having spent years interviewing imprisoned criminals, including notorious serial killers, [Berry-Dee] discovered that the lack of remorse they showed was in many ways more terrifying than the crimes they had committed. Yet in the course of these conversations, the author also had the chance to interview his subjects’ psychiatrists and, in doing so, uncovered a terrible truth: a monster can be hidden behind a friendly face.

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