Armchair BEA Day 4: Non-Fiction!

Today is Day # 4 of Armchair BEA and our Genre of Choice is: Non-Fiction!

I will be honest and say that I do not read very much non-fiction.  At least, I haven’t before this last year.  Since September of 2012, though, I have been reading an enormous amount of non-fiction, at least compared to what I usually read.  This is because I started my Ph.D. in English program and, despite what people think, it’s not just reading novels!  That’s probably the least of it, actually.

In addition, I have also been making a concerted effort to read more books on writing and to read more biographies/autobiographies/memoirs of people who I find interesting.  I also recently purchased a pile of books on the French Revolution because I’ve been fascinated by it, lately.  Most of those books remain unread, but still! 

So, while a year ago I may not have known where to go with this category and what to suggest, today I feel pretty confident that I can recommend some good ones.  I’ve listed a few below, with a short description and a reason why I recommend the book.  If you have any great suggestions for me, please let me know!

On Writing:

12543Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott:  I’m actually in the process of reading this one right now, so I can’t give to many details about it.  What I can say, though, is that as a reader and a writer, I responded to it right away.  The struggles, the confusion, the way real life seeps into our writing and into our writing process, it is all there in a well-told voice that is lovely to follow along with.  I can’t wait to finish this one.

Willa Cather On Writing by Willa Cather: Willa Cather is one of my favorite writers.  I read this collection of essays and letters (or at least parts of it) a long time ago and have it on-shelf for a re-read sometime soon.  Cather talks about her own writing and process, as well as that of other notable writers, such as Katherine Mansfield and Stephen Crane.  She focuses on how writing is an art form that is deeply personal, regardless of what one is writing.  Cather is easy to read and her thoughts are inspiring.  

On History:

182826Vive la Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution by Mark Steel:  This book is a very concise, amusing look at the French Revolution.  It is written by a comedian, but which makes it fun to read, but it is also well-researched and well-written.  You get the basic facts of who, what, where, why, and when.  It’s not the most insightful or detailed book in the world, but it’s a great overview and introduction, for newbies. I enjoyed it.

Colonialism and Homosexuality by Robert Aldrich:  This book is a comprehensive overview of same-sex relationships in the European Colonies (Africa, Asia, South America) during the 18th and 19th centuries (there are some discussions of earlier and later periods).  It really opens up the discussion about homosexuality, homosocial relationships, same-sex desire versus identity, and, most importantly, the power-relationship between Colonists and the Colonized, and how same-sex sexual relationships were bred from this dynamic. Fascinating.

On Literary Theory:

16939Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler:  I almost always like the “Very Short Introduction” books that I read.  They are put out by Oxford University Press and cover a wide-range of topics.  They are, as their titles indicate, short – which means they are compact, sometimes lacking detail, but great resources for beginners or those who want to brush up on a topic without spending too much time on it. This was the first of the series that I read, and the first book on literary theory that I ever read.  It was definitely a good introduction, it pointed to a lot of the major schools, movements, and theorists, and, most importantly, it had a great bibliography for further reading.

Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton: This book (and After Theory, also by Eagleton) is an incredible resource for literary theorists, new or experienced.  The 25th Anniversary edition is a must, as Eagleton revised the original to include material on feminist and cultural theory.  This text covers all of the major schools, goes more in-depth than the “Short Intro” books and, most importantly, is written in a way that is not a burden to read. Eagleton’s narrative voice is engaging and relaxed, which is helpful when the information being discussed is so complex and sometimes dry.  

On Philosophy:

340793Five Dialogues by Plato: A collection of essays which recount the days leading up to Socrates’ trial for “corrupting the youths of Athens”, as well as Socrates’ defense (apologia) to the jury, and his final conversation with his closest friends before his induced suicide by hemlock. The essays are an exploration of the man and his methods, as well as an historical account by Plato of the time period and its dangers (during the transition from oligarchy to democracy there was a tension between the government and its people – the government being always weary of its own weaknesses).   For anyone interested in history, philosophy, rhetoric, or law, this is a must-read.   

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf:  Some call this book a work of feminism, others an instruction on writing.  It is, indeed, a collection of lectures given by a feminist woman to a group of university writers and while I do believe it checks-off those boxes, I found this book to be more than just a “feminist writer’s piece” or a “woman’s piece,” despite its most famous quote about what a woman needs.  Woolf tells a story in order to get her point across about telling a story – it is metanarrative and humanist philosophy in one.  She’s commenting on gender dynamics, power struggles, individual liberties, and personal fulfillment.  This is one of the most powerful, and empowering, books that I have read in the past decade – and I am a dude, so it’s clearly not just for women.


1120516The Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White: The Beautiful Room is Empty is the second memoir n an autobiographical trilogy. It discusses not just the growth of boy-into-man, but also gives a historical account of the period. The 1950s and 1960s – the rise and fall of the Beatniks. The advent of hipsters. The strain for one man to understand what being homosexual means, and for one nation – one culture – to begin approaching a similar question. What is “gay?” White seamlessly weaves individual struggle with populous turmoil. There is the question in general, and the answers as approached through different lenses: class, education, region. How do the Midwestern intellectuals, mundane and suburban, treat homosexual? What about the artsy, edgy New York City high-rollers? The rich? The destitute? What’s the difference between a “trick,” his “john,” and day-life versus night-life? This novel attempts to answer these questions, and more. Really, though, it’s a novel of questions. It’s a memoir of life, as lead by the author – someone still obviously affected by the pain, the struggles, the joys, and the many, many questions of his youth. I also highly recommend the prequel, A Boy’s Own Story.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain: One of the benefits of reading an autobiography, and their primary appeal for most, is that they allow readers an opportunity to learn more about a historical figure’s life and work – things that could only be guessed at or inferred by reading their fiction, watching their movies, examining their politics, etc.  Twain’s autobiography fulfills this promise, in that it reinforces what one might learn about him through his fiction, but also reveals so much more about his private life, his personal ambitions, and his deep, deep pains.  I found Twain’s Autobiography to be wonderful and painful.  Anyone who is already a fan of Twain’s writing will certainly enjoy this text; however, conversely, those who do not enjoy his books may have difficulty with this, because his style and approach in narrative and essay form are similar (also some credit must be given to the editor, Charles Neider, who put some structure and organization into this edition of the work – Twain had dictated the entire thing, so its original form was far from fluid or cohesive).  It was incredibly rewarding not just to learn more about the man and his private life, but also about his writing process, his relationships with other prominent writers and figures of the time.

Ultimately, I am still a fiction reader, most of the time.  I do enjoy non-fiction, though – much more than I used to.  I think what helped me most was exploring topics that I was really interested in.  Biographies of favorite writers, for instance, or well-reviewed books about time periods, events, or issues that I am passionate about. 

What are your thoughts on non-fiction?  Do you read much of it?  Do you struggle with it?  Any recommendations?

17 Comments on “Armchair BEA Day 4: Non-Fiction!

    • I have it on my “writing on writing” bookcase (yes – I have an entire 3-shelf bookcase for books specifically about writing and/or narrative theory. Lol).


  1. Thanks for the recommendations. I was recently encouraged to read VW’s A Room of One’s Own, although I have my doubts cos I’m not a VW fan. The Willa Cather sounds good though. Have you ever read Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg?


    • I was not a fan of Virginia Woolf, either (actually – I quite disliked her after my first experience with “To the Lighthouse”) but after reading Orlando and then A Room of One’s Own, I completely changed my mind. She’s now one of my biggest inspirations.

      I’ve added Writing Down the Bones to my list, thanks!


  2. I think my favorite genre is biography. Or maybe essay. I can’t wait to read Team of Rivals. I also LOVE Thoreau’s Walden. Bird by Bird is a favorite. 🙂 So is A Room of One’s Own — and Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power — excellent. Also Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Oooh! And Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa.


  3. I love nonfiction so much that I just want to eat it all up! You’ve given me a bunch of titles to look into. Thanks!! (My tbr pile does NOT thank you!)


  4. I’ve never read anything by Willa Carther – wouldn’t even know where to start! – but her book on writing appeals to me.

    I love the sound of a humorous book on the French Revolution, though I’ve never thought of it as an amusing time in history! That alone makes me curious.


    • It’s not funny as in poking fun, it’s just history from a comedian’s point of view.. so there’s snark, sarcasm, etc. I enjoyed it.


  5. 3 of these I have read, so I’ll be happily adding the others to my TBR list. Thanks so much for the titles, Adam. Might I also recommend the biographies of Virgina Woolf & Willa Cather? They were both longer books, very involved and at times they did go on a bit, yet , both still worth the read.

    As for rousing non-fiction there’s:
    Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
    Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

    Both manage to make their historical subjects come alive and it feels like reading a take told by wise, storytellers.
    Perhaps one day I’ll forward you a much longer list of great reads on my shelf; fiction and non.


    • Thanks for the suggestions – I’m always ready to hear more!


    • Oh, she’s a trip! Orlando has been my favorite of hers, so far. I’m looking forward to reading Mrs. Dalloway sometime soon.


  6. Pingback: Armchair BEA – Wrap Up | Cheap Thrills

  7. I’ve been really interested in nonfiction the last couple of years — I think I’ve read about 30% nonfiction books this year. I just keep finding more and more interesting books, and the writing is so good! I think there’s just been so much good nonfiction published the past few years. I was a history major in college, so that explains part of it. I just finished Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie so I’ll probably go back and read all his other books too. I also have Amanda Foreman’s bio of Marie Antoinette on the TBR shelf so I want to start that one soon.


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