And now for something a little different

I read a lot more fiction than nonfiction. A lot more. But I do like nonfiction at times, particularly when I’m working to make progress on a novel that I don’t feel particularly urgent about. In that sort of situation, I don’t want to read fiction because it’s too distracting, but I do want to read something because I’m not obsessed with my own project.

Sometimes I read nonfiction just to find out more about some topic of interest. I that case, style isn’t a particular concern. But sometimes, I pick up something on a topic I’m somewhat interested in just because the first pages are written in an engaging style. Every now and then I pick up something solely because I read something by that author and wanted more by her.

Let’s look at a handful of the nonfiction books I currently have on my TBR shelves (The upper right corner of the top TBR shelf. There are three TBR shelves, and I think probably something like 14/15th or so are fiction).

1. Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution, by Lisa Jardine

At the end of the seventeenth century, a century and a half before the glare of electric street-lighting, the skies above London were dark at night. In that inky blackness, a blazing comet, spotted just before sunrise, early in November 1680, outshining the planets and the familiar constellations of the fixed stars, caused a sensation. A comet of such dazzling splendor would, it was widely believed, bring political and social upheaval in its wake; for a month, Londoners observed it through telescopes, tracked its progress across the heavens, and discussed its likely significance over the new beverages (coffee, tea, and chocolate) in the coffee-houses. In early December, two weeks after the comet had eventually faded from view, the furor surrounding its appearance intensified when a second, equally bright comet was sighted at dusk, travelling across the heavens in the opposite direction to the first.

I like this a lot. It’s a good story and well written.

I like nonfiction that utilizes narrative forms, by which I don’t mean narrative nonfiction like memoir or biographies – I have only minimal interest in biographies, as a rule, and less than that for memoir. I mean that I often find nonfiction more engaging if it provides narrative structure to the information it imparts or develops.

In this case, it looks like the author is building the scientific revolution within its historical context. Good. That’s really the only way to do it, and it’s also the way I prefer it, because history provides narrative context.

I wasn’t going to mention this particular nonfiction book, which isn’t on my TBR shelves because I’ve read it. But I think I will because, though it’s very different from the above example, it’s relevant in this context of using a narrative structure in nonfiction in order to engage the reader’s interest.

2. Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives and Evolutionary History, by Xiaoming Wang and Richard Tedford

This book is only 168 pp long, not counting indices and so on. The first 67 pp list the various canid genera and representative species, extinct and extant, of the canid subfamilies Hesperocyaninae, Borophaginae, and Caninae, with lots of illustrations of the whole animals, the skeletons, and the skulls, with text descriptions of the important characteristics of each species or genus. I found this fairly boring and just skimmed it. Then there’s a section on functional anatomy, which I know a fair bit about already because structural soundness is very important to me as a breeder, so I can tell you about the functional significance of shoulder placement and so on and so forth. Then there’s a section on hunting and particularly social behavior, because fundamentally canids (and hyaenids) are social hunters, while cats are solitary hunters, and this is interesting in many ways. (I realize there are exceptions. I’m talking about the overall clades, not individual species that are exceptions.)

Anyway, then we get to the last section, which places canids into a historical context. I will now quote a bit of the book:

From the already warm and humid conditions in the Paleocene, the beginning of the Eocene was marked by a rapid warming to a peak temperature more than 14C higher than today’s average global temperature. This extreme warming event is called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or more colloquially, the Eocene Hothouse. With these warm conditions, the Eocene global climate was perhaps the most homogenous within the Cenozoic as a whole. The temperature gradient – the differences between temperatures along the equator and temperatures at the poles – was only about half as much as it is today, resulting in a very equable climate with low seasonality. The climate was so warm that even the polar regions could support a diverse and productive biota, including the miacids [early carnivore clade].

The warm and humid conditions during the Eocene – coupled with a high level of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane – were ideally suited to the growth of dense forests in much of the world. During the Eocene Hothouse, tropical forest conditions expanded to the latitude of northern Wyoming … lush forest canopies dominated much of North America … through a series of small, foxlike miacids, the proto-canids gradually emerged in the late Eocene … From the peak of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum more than 50 MYA, the first major step toward a long trend of climactic deterioration during the Cenozoic occurred near the Eocene-Oligocene boundary, apparently associated with the initial appearance of ice sheets on the Antarctic continent. … …

… In midlatitude North America, the climactic deterioration initiated a process of progressively drier conditions and more seasonal environments. Plant communities at midlatitudes responded to this trend of decreasing rainfall by changing from high-productivity moist forests in the late Eocene to low-biomass dry woodlands at the beginning of the Oligocene, progressing to wooded grasslands and ultimately to large open grasslands in the middle Oligocene.

Now, what does this section do? It condenses historical changes in the climate and the plant biotas to a few paragraphs and sets the appearance, diversification, and trends within the canid subfamilies into this historical context. In other words, the authors finally provide a narrative structure for the canid family, a story about the opening up of the environment into dry grasslands and the repeated development within the canid family of cursorial, social, hypercarnivorous predators from semi-arboreal, probably minimally social, hypocarnivorous ancestral species as a consequence of that ecological shift.

The sudden increase in my personal interest in the story of canid evolution was marked. I read this section closely. After that, I was much more interested in the different genera and went back with far more attention to the early section of the book. In other words, for people like me, the authors started at the wrong place. They ought to have started with the narrative story of canid evolution, set the subfamilies into this story, and only then provided details about the different genera within those subfamilies.

Probably there are readers for whom the book is structured for maximum engagement. It was just kind of interesting to notice how providing any kind of narrative structure immediately increased my personal interest – even though I went into the book already interested in this subject.

I suspect that much of the nonfiction that I really prefer to read for enjoyment is going to have a narrative structure, even though none of it would be classified as narrative nonfiction.

Let’s take a look at the next book. This is another one I’ve read and keep going back to. It may surprise you that this is not about dogs. It is, however, about evolution. (Not all the books on this list are about natural science, or at least not as clearly as this one and the ones prior.)

3. Unnatural Selection by Katrina van Grouw

This is possibly my favorite book about evolutionary theory. It’s readable, it’s concise and clear, and it’s correct. Also, the illustrations are amazing. Here’s how it begins:

Names are important. They’re a sort of code – an abbreviation, allowing us to communicate without ambiguity or the need for lengthy descriptions. Like any code, the only way a name can be useful is if it’s understood by everyone using it. In a small community, it makes no difference if everyone calls a Song thrush a Mavis or a Surf scoter a Skunk duck – one name is as good as another as long as the whole population can relate to it. However, a visiting alien or other explorer hearing the words “Bog bull,” “Butterbump,” “Mire drum,” or “Thunder pumper” could be forgiven for assuming they belonged to four separate types of animal, when in fact they’re all names for a single species: the American bittern. We all know that the single word “robin” refers to two very different birds on either side of the Atlantic. A butterfische in German is a Ruck gunnel fish in English, while a butterfish in English is a Medusenfische in German.

This one doesn’t open with a narrative structure, but it does open by playing with words. Grouw is going to argue that the inflexibility of taxonomic names leads to a problem in understanding what species are and are not. (She’s right.) She’s also going to argue that artificial selection of domestic species has A LOT to teach us about speciation in general. (She’s right about that too.) (That’s why Darwin kept pigeons.) (There’s a lot about pigeons in this book. Some really weird pigeons exist, that’s for sure.)

Also, I get a kick out of that “We all know” line. I bet this is something we don’t all know. Our American robin is in the thrush family, Turdidae. The European robin is in the flycatcher family, Muscicapidae. Also, there is a quite delightful little bird called the “pink robin” in Australia. Also, let me see, okay: red-capped robin, scarlet robin, rose robin, eastern yellow robin, western yellow robin, pale-yellow robin (come on, people! That’s a stupid name!), flame robin (way better!), white-breasted robin, hooded robin, wow, the list goes on and on. These are all Australian birds in the family Petroicidae. I do enjoy names. And taxonomy. For me, that’s a good, enticing opening.

This next book is quite different.

4. The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel

When she was four years old, Michaela DePrince saw a picture that changed her life. Then know as Mabinty Bangura, she was living in an orphanage in Sierra Leone; her father had been murdered during the country’s civil war, and her mother had starved to death. Even among the orphans the little girl was an outcast, deemed an unadoptable “devil child” because of her rebellious personality and the vitiligo that left white patches on her dark skin.

One day, a discarded Western magazine blue against the orphanage’s fence, carrying with it an image from a mysterious and distant world. “There was a lady on it, she was on her tippy-toes, in this pink, beautiful tutu,” DePrince recalls. “I had never seen anything like this – a costume that stuck out with glitter on it … I could just see the beauty in that person and the hope and the love and just everything that I didn’t have.” She thought, “This is what I want to be.” Entranced by the photo, the little girl ripped off the magazine’s cover and hid it in her underwear. Every night she would gaze at it and dream. The image of the graceful, smiling ballerina “represented freedom, it represented hope, it represented trying to live a little longer … seeing it completely saved me,” she says. She yearned “to become this exact person.”

DePrince’s story is not just a heartwarming tale. It’s an illustration of a common and powerful phenomenon. …

You could hardly get more narrative than that. Postrel knows how to start a nonfiction book in a way that will appeal to a reader of fiction, or of narrative nonfiction. I think I picked this book up quite some time ago after reading some online article by Postrel on, I don’t know. Hmm. Cloth or clothing or something that I’m not particularly interested in, I think. Oh, googling around, I bet it was perhaps a review of her book The Fabric of Civilization. Anyway, that review or post or article or whatever was good enough that I picked up this book of hers because it wasn’t that expensive and I thought someday I’d like to read it. Well, I haven’t yet, but eventually I probably will. This is certainly an engaging opening.

5. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

Alexander von Humboldt was born, on 14 September 1769, into a wealthy aristocratic Prussian family who spent their winters in Berlin and their summers at the family estate of Tegel, a small castel about ten miles northwest of the city. His father, Alexander Georg von Humboldt, was an officer in the army, a chamberlain at the Prussian court, and a confidant of the future king Friedrich Wilhelm II Alexander’s mother, Marie Elisabeth, was the daughter of a rich manufacturer who had brought money and land into the family. …

Boring so far! Obviously a narrative structure, but I did say I’m rarely interested in biographies. There’s nothing here remotely as catchy as Postrel’s biographical sketch of that little girl. I’ve read only a handful of biographies, and those largely because they were the only books handy and I needed to read something. (This was before you could store a library on your phone.)

For me, leaping ahead and starting the story with Alexander von Humboldt doing something interesting would be much more engaging. Well, flipping ahead, it looks like we get past his childhood pretty briskly, at least.

6. Ordinarily Well: The Case for Antidepressants by Peter Kramer

A Swiss psychiatrist, Roland Kuhn, invented the modern antidepressant. He didn’t synthesize a chemical. He invented the concept.

Kuhn gave the antidepressant era a birth date: January 18, 1956. Six days earlier, under his care, a forty-nine-year-old hospitalized woman had begun taking 100 mg daily of G22355, a substance supplied by the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Geigy. On the eighteenth, Paula J.F. was markedly better – less afflicted by what Kuhn called her “vital depression.” By the twenty-first, the ward staff noted that the patient was “totally changed.” An entry in the medical record read, “For three days now, it is as if the patient had undergone a transformation.”

Kramer is a very good writer of popular science. He understands the importance of narrative in drawing in the reader, as he demonstrates here, as well as in all his other books.

Along with books about depression and other such topics, Kramer has written a novel. I imagine that is also about depression and other such topics, come to think of it. It doesn’t sound like my kind of thing and I’ve never read it, but I’ve read all his nonfiction. This one’s been on my TBR shelves for a surprisingly long time. I think I’ll leave it on the coffee table upstairs so I’m more likely to pick it up and start it.

This last one is quite different, but I hope I will find it almost equally interesting:

7. Everyday Things in Premodern Japan by Susan B Hanley

How well did the Japanese live prior to their industrialization in the late nineteenth century? The most widely held view is that Japan was a poor, backward country with a low standard of living, and when it began to industrialize, it had a lower standard of living than did Western countries when they began this process. However, though this view is held by most historians and economists, this view is rarely shared by the scholars who study the lifestyles and material culture of the Japanese. A reassessment of how well Japanese lived by the time they began to modernize their economy and the implications for industrialization are the subject of this study.

That’s quite boring. Also, I don’t care. This is not an argument that I’m interested in. I’m specifically interested in the actual things used in daily life in Japan prior to the modern era, which is what the title says the book is about. I trust most of the book will be about that.

I’m interested in materials used, architecture, food and cooking techniques, agriculture and agricultural implements, cloth and clothing, everything about premodern material culture. I’m also interested in the social patterns of the people living in the region and using those implements. This is the sort of thing it’s good to have in your head so you can write fiction without stopping to do a lot of research. This doesn’t look like a very interesting book to read, but it will, I hope, be interesting as a topic, and useful as a look at an example of non-Western premodern material culture.

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3 thoughts on “And now for something a little different”

  1. I read a fair amount of history. The most recent one I really liked was The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal into Victorian Homes Changed Everything by Ruth Goodman

    Subtitle’s wrong. It was Elizabethean homes.

  2. I’ve been reading, off and on, “For All the Tea in China” by Sarah Rose, which is essentially a biography of Robert Fortune, who snuck into China and stole tea plants so the English could get their caffeine fix without having to buy it.
    It certainly starts off with a bang. Literally. He’s on a junk in the Chinese sea and pirates are about to board the ship. The crew had given up until he single handedly roused them to fire on the pirates and scare them off. Which sounds heroic, certainly, but it makes me wonder how reliable a narrator he was. Since none of the crew wrote or read English, he could write whatever he pleased without fear of contradiction. (Writing an autobiography in the days of Twitter would be fraught with peril.)

  3. non-fiction written interestingly I’ve enjoyed includes: The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, about – well, the Great Game of spies and counter spies in Central Asia in the nineteenth century.

    The Measure of Reality by Alfred Crosby, a survey of what innovations went on in Western Europe between 900 AD and 1600 to produce what they did.

    Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson, a novelistic brief bio of Newton’s physics and alchemic career and a lot of attention paid to what he did as Warden of the Mint, which included catching counterfeiters. I learned more about coinage than I knew there was to know, too.

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