Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
When I wrote my anti-memoir tirade last week, I did not expect that it would ignite such a firestorm of comments both defending and criticizing my statement. And although I enjoyed hearing the responses on both sides, I felt that I needed to clarify something: I do not dislike nonfiction books. Quite the opposite: my hate is very particularized toward the self-obsessed memoirs that have become ubiquitous in today’s culture (though they are not exclusive to it). True, most of the books I read are fiction, but I believe that sometimes, nonfiction books can permanently alter your perspective, maybe even more than fiction.
In honor of that, I wanted to talk about a few of the nonfiction books that have changed the way I look at the world. These are books that are articulate and well-argued, books that have challenged my beliefs and ideas, and—most importantly—books that have changed my mind.
(Before I start this list, I would like to note that these are only the books that have been mind-altering for me. This type of a list would be different for everyone. Although I would highly recommend any of these books for anyone who’s interested, my headline is a bit of a misnomer. But “Three Nonfiction Books You Must Read Before You Die” sounds so much better than “Three Nonfiction Books That Altered My Worldview, and That I Highly Recommend to Anyone Who’s Interested,” don’t you think? But I digress.)
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed—What value does a book like this have now that DNA evidence has supported the allegation that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings did conceive children together? (Though some historians, most notably those in the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, still argue otherwise.) But Gordon-Reed shows just how racially biased earlier historians’ accounts have been, weighing evidence differently depending on whether it was coming from a white source (i.e. Jefferson’s daughter) or a black one (Hemings’ son). Furthermore, this book made me wonder what kind of a man Jefferson really was, how he could write the exalted words that have become the basis of American society, while he was having an affair with a woman that he himself kept enslaved. Was he a monster? A real-life Simon Legree? Admirably, Gordon-Reed doesn’t stoop to this type of name calling, and I finished the book feeling like Jefferson had been neither the legend-beyond-reproach that many historians have tried to paint him as, nor the soulless villain it would be so easy to see in light of these allegations. Instead, he was intelligent and ahead of his time—but also arrogant and hypocritical. In short, he was just as human as the rest of us. And isn’t it better to remember that the Founding Fathers were men, not gods? (Gordon-Reed’s latest work, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, just won the National Book Award. It will definitely be on my must-read list for 2009.)
Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich—There’s a belief in America that anyone can make it here just by working hard and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. So Ehrenreich attempts to do just that—and discovered that the plight of the low-wage, unskilled worker in America is much more difficult than most of us in our upper-middle class ivory towers would imagine. Ehrenreich immerses herself in the world of the minimum wage worker by traveling around the country, taking whatever jobs she can find while learning from her coworkers, many of whom have to work two or three jobs under deplorable conditions just to get by. Poor people don’t work hard? Myth. There are good opportunities available for everyone who wants them? Myth. (So much for those bootstraps.) This book deftly undercuts the idea of American exceptionalism by asking the question, “How can a society be so exceptional when so many people can barely feed themselves?” I read this book a few years ago, back when the economy was still booming; I imagine now, when the economic picture looks more and more bleak every day, it will be even more resonant.
The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Schlain—This book argues that alphabetic literacy has resulted in the subjugation of women because literacy forced the left hemisphere (the linear, concrete half, where most males are stronger) to become more valued, pushing the right hemisphere (the holistic, visual half, where most females are stronger) into the background. It’s an intriguing argument, one I cannot fully encompass here because I don’t totally understand it. But Schlain, a surgeon, admirably keeps most of his support non-scientific. Instead, he takes an anthropologic lens to several societies—both pre- and post-alphabetic literacy—to show how the status of women evolved and changed. Then, he examines modern society, arguing that the re-emergence of visual mediums (film, television, etc.) has allowed us to become more egalitarian. I first read this during my junior year of college, and even all these years later I’m still not sure if I agree with it. Why? Because I cannot figure out how I, both a female and a writer, fit into that right hemisphere/left hemisphere dichotomy. But I still think about it all the time, which is perhaps a greater accomplishment.
Selected Book Releases, December 8-14
I guess publishers are pushing to sell the books they released earlier in the year for Christmas, because the list is pretty short (again)…
The Treasure by Iris Johansen—Historical romance set in the 12th century. Sequel to the 1996 book Lion’s Bride.
No Limits: The Will to Succeed by Michael Phelps—I’m not gonna say anything here. Memoir rants are so last week.