Recently, someone asked me for good books for her nonfiction book club. As an academic librarian, I don’t usually get asked for broad recommendations—instead, it’s specific research requests like where do I find site reports on shell mound archaeology or I need academic articles on ancestral genetic testing among African Americans.
So this was fun. I read a lot of nonfiction, and have occasionally attended nonfiction book clubs. After thinking it over, these are the books I recommended in 2018, along with my reading notes.
I find each one to be insightful and relatively easy to read. Some are academic, but if you’re motivated enough, you should be able to read it. Most of all, I look for books that could provoke a lively discussion… hopefully without sparking lasting enmity!
1. The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages
Jessi Streib’s book compares cross-class couples with those who grew up in the same social class in childhood. The good Americans she interviewed were sure that class didn’t affect them (except that the social group they grew up with had a profound impact on their adult habits… even if they’d lived their entire adult life in another class). The only couples who talked about this tension had a social scientist in the mix. And since I cheerily read every third paragraph to Amos, we’re now in that group as well.
(For an easier and less academic read, Joan Williams’ The White Working Class would also provoke great discussions in cross-class situations.)
2. Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust
This one’s for discussion in nice upper-middle class communities. Richard Reeves hits the educated classes hard, pointing out that in their push to excel, they tend to throw everyone else under the bus. To maintain our position, we end up “opportunity hoarding” good schools, creative jobs, and internships, either through pouring money into training kids to get ahead, or using informal networks to gain access. Reeves calls this un-American. We might need to risk our kids not succeeding if we really believe in a meritocracy… and we then need to help all children, even those “unlucky in their parents,” have a shot at their dreams. Provocative, and great for discussion among people who are focused on helping their kids succeed at all costs.
3. Irresistible: the rise of addictive technology
Adam Alter’s Irresistible is a light read but an enjoyable takedowns of our habits. We’re all behavioral addicts, so find ways to turn it off, take a break, and stop yourself from using devices and websites that will keep you hooked. (Tristan Harris also has a good TED talk about this.) I’d happily substitute a similar book; I think the value is in discussing how technology loops us in, and how we can unhook a bit together.
4. Who Are You, Really?
I loved Brian Little’s earlier Me, Myself, and Us, but it was too dense and careful an argument for most readers. This lighter read looks at how our enduring traits—crabby, cheerful, neurotic, easy-going—are built by biology and the culture and community in which we were raised.
We all want and need a cozy niche… but it’s also worth the discomfort of leaving your natural crabby habitat for the sake of your personal projects, like loving your kids, speaking up, writing a book, etc. I appreciate the balance between knowing your lasting self, but being willing to flex it for things you care about.
5. The All-or-Nothing Marriage
As a newlywed social scientist, I was eager to read Eli Finkel’s exploration of contemporary marriage, and it did not disappoint. Marriage has different meanings worldwide, as he reminds us: “In some societies, husbands and wives live apart. In others, they don’t share economic resources” (6). Yet western couples live in nuclear family bubbles. Finkel challenges the way we’re encouraged to measure life by happiness and passion, and advocates a life measured by meaning. He images Maslow’s pyramid as a mountain, where sometimes we’re in survival mode, sitting at base camp with a sleepless toddler. But other times allow for greater adventure, meaning we need to weather changes on the mountain. This is long for a one-off book club, and probably better for a discussion group among couples or close friends.
6. What is Marriage For?
J. Graff’s book is a historical take on what pair-bonded relationships are for… to have a co-worker on the farm? For sex or babies? To connect families or stabilize society? For true love and companionship? What we think marriage is for, she says, makes all the difference in how we respond to gay marriage, child marriage, or poly marriages:
Define marriage as a lifetime commitment, and divorce flouts its very definition. Define marriage a vehicle for legitimate procreation, and contraception violates that definition. Define marriage as a complete union of economic interests, and allowing women to own property divides the family. . . But define marriage a commitment to . . . care for each other as best as you humanly can, then all these possibilities—divorce, contraception, feminism, marriage between two women or two men—are necessary to respect the human spirit.
This is lighter than the other book, but better for discussion, as it opens up the question of what paired relationships are for.
7. Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs that Fill Your Day
Craig Lambert notes all the services that used to come as part of a purchase (like loading groceries, pumping gas and checking oil, planning finances, filing taxes, researching and booking travel) which we now do ourselves; this increases our mental load, lowers the costs of companies, and exhausts us with continual attention to details.
8. Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies
Sophie Egan takes down the bizarre inconsistencies of American food culture in an engaging format, from the massive amount of food we eat on Super Bowl Sunday, to the way marketers are constantly switching in and out new holiday snacks to be tried. A light read, but probably one that everyone will connect with.
9. Primates of Park Avenue
In a light but fun read, Wednesday Martin takes on the role of anthropologist observing a new culture–that of New York City’s most elite women. She’s not actually an anthropologist, but I’ll forgive her. Like most folks, I enjoy a good voyeuristic look at the rich, especially one with a nice moral uplift at the end.