Nonfiction. The world’s most boring book genre.
… or so I thought.
Nonfiction often gets a bad rap for being “boring” or “inaccessible,” and sometimes it can seem, well, a just bit intimidating. In the time since I started book blogging, however, I have developed a much better appreciation for nonfiction books. I made it a priority in 2021 to read more of them, and it ended up being the genre of which I read the most in 2021. Nonfiction was 30% of my reading and it has become one of my favorite genres. (yes I know this renders my blog name ironic)
I’m writing this post as a follow-up of sorts to my Best Books of 2021 list, which was only composed of fiction books. We need to give those nonfiction gems some attention.
Here are five nonfiction books to read in 2022.
My Top 5 Nonfiction Book Recommendations:
(In no particular order)
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
Blurb (from Goodreads):
“National Book Award winner M. T. Anderson delivers an account of the Siege of Leningrad and the role played by Russian composer Shostakovich and his Leningrad Symphony.
In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.
This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives.“
This book I read back in January, but it still ranks as one of the most gripping nonfiction books I have ever read. It follows the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, a Russian composer who lived during the early 20th century, and the symphony he wrote during WW2 while living in Leningrad under siege.
Now, I knew that the Soviet Union in the 1930s was not a fun place to be, but I did not know just how bad it really was. I still remember the part of the book where it described how Shostakovich feared for his life, was called an “enemy of the people” and thought he was hours away from being a victim of Stalin’s next purge– because the Soviet leaders did not like his music. Or the part where it described how the government attempted to control art in order to push the Bolshevik ideology and assigned a political significance to music itself, a level of insanity I never thought could actually happen.
This book gives you extensive historical context about events in the USSR from the Russian Revolution to WW2, as well as a biography of Shostakovich and an account of the siege of Leningrad. The writing style was engaging yet informative, and the book was pretty much unputdownable.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Blurb (from Goodreads):
The full inside story of the breathtaking rise and shocking collapse of a multibillion-dollar startup, by the prize-winning journalist who first broke the story and pursued it to the end in the face of pressure and threats from the CEO and her lawyers.
In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood tests significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.
For years, Holmes had been misleading investors, FDA officials, and her own employees. When Carreyrou, working at The Wall Street Journal, got a tip from a former Theranos employee and started asking questions, both Carreyrou and the Journal were threatened with lawsuits. Undaunted, the newspaper ran the first of dozens of Theranos articles in late 2015. By early 2017, the company’s value was zero and Holmes faced potential legal action from the government and her investors. Here is the riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a disturbing cautionary tale set amid the bold promises and gold-rush frenzy of Silicon Valley.“
Bad Blood was recommended to me by a friend, and though I wasn’t expecting to be interested in it, I ended up, again, being able to tear myself away from the pages (Or, um, from my Kindle)
As a whole, it amounts to an exposee of Elizabeth Holmes and her fraudulent biomedical company Theranos. Holmes dropped out of Stanford to found a startup that claimed to present revolutionary blood test technology. In truth, Holmes had been lying to her investors and selling tests to real patients that did not actually work.
The book is written like a legal thriller and takes you through Holmes’ entire life, from her ambitious childhood to when she founded Theranos, and also describes eyewitness accounts from former employees who witnessed the companies dubious practices. It’s a story about the dark side of unrelenting ambition and greed, and the moral bankruptcy that can emerge when your goal is racking up your net worth instead of creating a good product.
It was shocking to me that it could be possible to sell something- a medical device, of all things– to investors and companies and have it approved for use without ever actually demonstrating that it works. Theranos was exposed back in 2015-2016, but the fraud trial actually just happened this week.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
“What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us? There’s no better guide through these mind-expanding questions than acclaimed astrophysicist and best-selling author Neil deGrasse Tyson.
But today, few of us have time to contemplate the cosmos. So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day.“
Aha, the most iconic astrophysics book. I have been rather obsessed with space for a while– there’s a video on YouTube somewhere of me when I was three talking about the dwarf planets in the solar system (Pluto, Eris, and two others that I invented myself) — and I loved how this book managed to explain complicated physics topics for a lay audience (me). The scope of cosmology and astrophysics is quite literally astronomical, and Tyson manages to convey everything that is so interesting about the subject without overwhelming us less-than-geniuses with technical details.
It’s also a quick read, holding true to its title. I think it only took me a day or two to finish, and, unlike many scientific books, it was not incredibly dense. A must-read for fans of popular science books!
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Synopsis (from Goodreads) (truncated):
“At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.”
Wow. This book. When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir about a horrible, ironic tragedy. Paul Kalanithi was a doctor who at the age of 36 was diagnosed with late-stage cancer and forced to grapple with his own mortality. This book was very sobering and made me think about how short life is and how important it is to make the most of every moment and devote your life to doing something good. I cannot imagine so quickly having the rug pulled out from under you.
Kalanithi also explores his childhood and pathway towards the medical field, and it was overall an incredibly inspiring and well-written book that I would recommend to everyone. The writing was beautiful and poetic, and though a very heavy read, it was one that will stick with me for a while. I think this book needs more recognition.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
Blurb (from Goodreads):
“Born a slave circa 1818 (slaves weren’t told when they were born) on a plantation in Maryland, Douglass taught himself to read and write. In 1845, seven years after escaping to the North, he published Narrative, the first of three autobiographies. This book calmly but dramatically recounts the horrors and the accomplishments of his early years—the daily, casual brutality of the white masters; his painful efforts to educate himself; his decision to find freedom or die; and his harrowing but successful escape.
An astonishing orator and a skillful writer, Douglass became a newspaper editor, a political activist, and an eloquent spokesperson for the civil rights of African Americans. He lived through the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the beginning of segregation. He was celebrated internationally as the leading black intellectual of his day, and his story still resonates in ours.“
This is a book I read for school– in fact the only book I got to read in my entire AP English Language class in 11th grade (thanks, virtual school).
Frederick Douglass’s memoir follows his childhood as a slave and his eventual escape to freedom, describing the horrific conditions of chattel slavery in America. It became one of the seminal texts for the abolitionist movement, published 20 years before the abolition of slavery in the country. (the fact that slavery was abolished in the US less than 200 years ago is insane)
One of the most memorable parts of this memoir is Douglass’s philosophy on literacy as a means for self-actualization– he describes how he managed to illegally teach himself to read and write, and how this changed the way he perceived the injustice of his life. Barring slaves from access to education was one of the ways to keep them from rebelling.
Have you read any of these books? What is the best nonfiction book you’ve read?
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