Book Recommendations: Non-fiction

Instead of tearing down all the time, I’ve decided to build up. On this website I recently commented at how dumb The DaVinci Code sounded to me, and I feel bad for being such a curmudgeon. So instead of a condescending review of a book I’ve not actually read, I shall start making recommendations of books I actually have. To start things off, Non-Fiction.

My closest friends have listened to me complain about the incessant recommendations for the The DaVinci Code I’ve recently received. It’s been tirelessly recommended to me by many as being “intriguing” and “a real page-turner”. So after about four weeks of starting sentences with “if one more person recommends The friggin DaVinci Code …” I decided to try it out, just to see.

The great thing about a book like The DaVinci Code is that it’s available at grocery stores. During my last visit to the supermarket, near the milk aisle and greeting cards, The DaVinci Code was on display. So I picked up a copy, opened it and read a couple of pages. Then I realized I didn’t want to do it. I simply had no interest, and I still think the premise is dumb.

But I also had the realization that I needn’t be so negative. I should not constantly complain about The DaVinci Code. I should just ignore it and instead talk about books that I feel are worth talking about.

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon S. Wood

I imagine that there are two reactions that one may have at having a Ben Frank Bio recommended to them. One: “that sounds boring”, or two: “Jeez, not another biography of Franklin, there’s been like two hundred already”.

Franklin’s own auto-biography is required reading at many schools; and even if it’s not, there are not many Americans who don’t know a great deal about him. He played with electricity. He wrote feverishly (and was a printmaker). He was a prolific inventor. He is generally regarded as a wise philosopher, and he had something to do with founding the United States.

The Americanization is a biography that covers a great deal of his accomplishments that, no doubt, you’re already familiar with. But it does something many biographies and history books forget to do: it puts his actions and beliefs in context with sixteenth century society. A great deal of Americanization is not about Franklin, but about life in the 1700s. Which, in turn, makes for fascinating reading.

It is often hard to think of Franklin as anything but American, which is of course not true. He had to become an American. The book guides the reader through a series of “becomings”. Becoming a Gentleman. Becoming a Diplomat. Becoming a Patriot. And finally, Becoming an American. This flow allows for a great journey into understanding colonial politics, life and society and sheds a great deal of light on one of our country’s most important founders and more interestingly (and dare I say, more importantly) into the society that led to its birth.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans

In 1941 two of my favorite artists—James Agee and Walker Evans—created this masterpiece of literature and photography (they insisted that each of their respective contributions stood on their own as separate pieces, and that Evans’ photographs were not merely illustrations of Agee’s words). I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t get around to reading it until early last year.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a journalistic description of the life of white sharecroppers in Mississippi during the great depression. There is something unsettling about it. Perhaps it’s that the setting seems so alien (with its striking poverty and obvious suffering of the subjects), but is a mere sixty years ago. Many of our parents or grandparents can probably remember the time, maybe even the setting. But it is more probably the fact that Agee so beautifully captures the settings and forces you empathize with those he is writing about.

The book jumps back and forth from poetic musings to straight-forward descriptions. In between stories of how he and Evans came to be working on this project, Agee details the food that is eaten, the shelter that is lived in, the work that is done and even the clothes that are worn by a group of share-cropping families. Evans’ photos do the same. The hand-squared planks of the houses and dresses made from flour sacks are just as poignant in the photographs as they are in the words.

But the book transcends the mere descriptions into a gripping and fulfilling read. It is not simply an account of the time Agee and Evans spent with the share-croppers, but is also an account of Agee’s own guilt and self-examination and a study of what it means to suffer and live through the suffering.