I’ve never been an avid non-fiction reader. I’ve wanted to read more history and science, but my mind tends to wander in the middle of a sentence as my thoughts fly toward fictional ends. The discovery of non-fiction on audio has made a huge difference for me, however, as well as choosing the right titles. I need to be sufficiently interested, and I need to take it one chapter at a time. Using both of these approaches, I’ve managed to read more non-fiction over the past couple of years than I have in the previous forty-nine put together. Sadly, that probably also includes all the books I was supposed to read for school. Better late than never, eh? Or, is it that you’re never too old to learn something new?
Following is a sampling of the great non-fiction titles I’ve consumed this year.
How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery
I’ve always wanted to read more biography and memoir and How to Be a Good Creature is a great place to start because it combines really interesting facts about animals with chapters of Sy Montgomery’s life and career.
Having read a few more memoir type books since this one, I’ve been able to narrow down just what it is I like about the genre so much: the sense of possibility. Montgomery has done amazing things, but for the most part, she’s living a fairly ordinary life – even if surrounded by some of nature’s most compelling creatures. But reading about the choices she made to get where she is today gave me a sense of hope that life doesn’t have to follow a predestined path. That you can grow up to be anything you want, really. There are lucky breaks and lightning strikes, but for most of us, it’s having a dream and going after it. Putting in the work and loving it. Because it’s your dream. It’s what you want to do.
How to Be a Good Creature conveys this sense in a wonderful way, along with real-life lessons taught to the author by all of the creatures she came into contact with.
Naturally, the chapter about the octopuses was my favourite. ❤
The Coming Storm by Michael Lewis
Fascinating and terrifying.
I have an Audible subscription and one of the recent benefits I’ve come to love is the choice of two titles (usually from their Audible Originals selection) offered for free every month. Invariably, I’ll choose one of the non-fiction downloads, because they sound so damn interesting. I mentally tagged The Coming Storm “post-apocalyptic” research when I acquired it, based on a quick glance at the synopsis. When I finally loaded it up to listen, I thought it was going to be all about weather disasters.
It is and it isn’t. More, it’s a history of weather science and how tracking the weather and interpreting historical data has helped programmers develop sophisticated statistical algorithms – thus enabling more accurate weather prediction, among other things – but how our weather is changing. And how, in some instances, corporate America is monetizing this data and these changes. Information and misinformation are both worth the same, apparently.
The most entertaining chapter by far was about Kathy Sullivan, one of the first women in space. The rest of the book is pretty scary. Oh, and the Accuweather app is so gone from my phone.
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
Earlier this year, author Roni Loren blogged about her 30-day social media break and credited Cal Newport’s books, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World for the greater part of her amazing productivity during that time. I found her experiment truly inspiring, particularly as for the earlier part of this year, I was feeling overwhelmed by the demands on my time, and exhausted by the effort of maintaining a social media presence.
I’d had four titles release in quick succession (one a month) in the latter half of 2018, and was working my way toward the release of Purple Haze. Generally, I enjoy interacting with friends and readers on Facebook, in the few groups I’m active in and on my personal timeline. I try hard not to spam any of these places with news of my upcoming releases and have always tried to maintain a consistent activity level so that when I do talk about my books, the post isn’t a serious departure from “what Kelly posts about.” Writing is an integral part of my life, therefore it’s a part of my timeline.
I’ve always had a difficult relationship with social media, though. I often have to make myself go online and do the thing. I assumed it was because I was old and more extroverted than introverted. I like spending time with people. I also prefer to converse face-to-face, where I can read facial cues and body language. I’m often confused by the tone (or lack thereof) of text messages. Like most older people I know, I use a lot of emojis when texting, because they help intonate. That’s me grimacing and smiling and winking. Even while texting, I’m still trying to tell you with my face how I feel about this.
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World explained a lot of my difficulties with texting and my ambivalence toward the true value of social media.
Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World by Scott McCormick
Another Audible Original production! Seriously, if you’re an Audible subscriber, check out the monthly free offerings. There are some true gems!
This was super entertaining! I really enjoyed The Bone Wars and the rivalry between Adidas and Puma. These two stories really do illustrate the subtitle for this volume, about how these rivalries changed the world. The war between the two paleontologists Cope and Marsh often read like (sounded) like a pissing contest between preschoolers, but their rivalry led significant discoveries and a complete retooling of the way dinosaur bones were classified.
The rivalry between Puma and Addidas spawned the ENTIRE INDUSTRY OF SPORT SPONSORSHIP. Arguably, it would probably have happened anyway, but the intense competition between these two brothers stripped decades off the natural coming pairing of sports equipment manufacturers sponsoring talented athletes.
I found the other two stories (Hamilton/Burr and Elizabeth/Mary) historically interesting but not as fascinating.
How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed by Ray Kurzweil
If you’ve read The Singularity is Near, How to Create a Mind is a good follow-up. Renowned futurist, Ray Kurzweil, refers to his previous title reasonably often and thematically, they’re similar. Kurzweil is always looking forward.
In this book, he chronicles much of the work he and others have done in exploring and understanding not only how the human brain works, but how the mind functions – as a part of the brain and as a totally separate entity. He asks the question “what is a mind” and goes on to answer it in several interesting ways.
Kurzweil’s research led him to the development of text to speech programs such as Dragon Naturally Speaking and Siri, and it’s interesting to learn how those got started and what’s actually behind the voice. He also talks a lot about Watson, the AI that won at Jeopardy.
It’s all fascinating stuff. I took lots of notes for use in an upcoming project.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Another memoir and not something I thought I’d ever read, let alone enjoy. J.D. Vance isn’t fabulously wealthy. He hasn’t won a Nobel Prize. He’s not on TV or in the movies. He isn’t in the Guinness Book of World Records or You-Tube famous. He’s… just a guy. He’s… lived a life. It’s an interesting life, but not particularly compelling.
It’s where he came from and where he ended up that power this book, and the honest conviction of the narrative. The lucky breaks and the hard-won victories. The idea that anyone can make a go of it in this life and that circumstances don’t necessarily have to hold you back – except when they do.
Vance challenges a lot of assumptions about poor and working-class whites and the idea of upward mobility. His passion for the subject is obvious through all the research presented, but also in his tone and how, as a person, he has both changed, but not.
The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage by Clifford Stoll
Fantastic! This memoir/real-life story reads like fiction and Cliff Stoll’s voice is an essential part of the narrative.
Basically, it’s the story of how Stoll tracked a hacker through various networks, collecting the evidence that led to the hacker’s identity and capture. The book was about so much more than tracing a single hacker, though. What I found to be the most troubling aspect – aside from the fact this hacker was free to roam through military networks, gaining access to sensitive data through gaping holes in the security of over thirty poorly administrated systems – was the fact no one, not the FBI, CIA, NSA, or military intelligence, really knew what to do about it. Even more troubling, few of these organizations even seemed to care. What Stoll’s story revealed was the need for an entity focused specifically on these sorts of crimes where jurisdiction and simple dollar value weren’t points of contention. Where the breach of trust or the ethical question of: do you belong here? were the only criteria required to pursue a case. And, of course, the need to properly educate system administrators on how to secure their systems. How to classify sensitive data.
The book also chronicles Stoll’s evolution from someone who was fairly apolitical into someone who gave a shit. I really enjoyed reading his thoughts and feelings about the rights and wrongs of what this hacker was doing from his own, very personal perspective.
Also, the footnote with the cookie recipe? I giggled for ten minutes afterward. And the book just wouldn’t have been the same without these frequent glimpses into Stoll’s life with his girlfriend, Martha, and roommates.
Really, a fantastic read and highly recommended to anyone with an interest in computer security, the ethics of hacking, the evolution of cybercrime, or the history of computing around Berkely, California in the eighties. The writing never gets too technical (in my opinion) and the story holds wide appeal.