Monday, February 9, 2009

Non-fiction can be exciting too

I noticed that Filipinos don't read non-fiction as much as they read novels. Most of us head directly to the bestsellers (mostly novels) and the romance sections of our local bookstores. Perhaps we associate non-fiction too much with our school textbooks, with their unimaginative language and uninspired subject matter. I've never liked non-fiction before too, not until after I read Robert Wright's The Moral Animal almost 15 years ago. The Moral Animal is one of the most intelligent books I've read, which establishes a compelling case on why promiscuity is advantageous to women too. Sadly, this has been several years out of print. I really want more people to read it, if only for the heated discussions among those who've read it.

There have been several non-fiction books that have become publishing phenomena in their own right. Most of them are business books and self-help. Recently, Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell's books on how people think (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers), Good to Great, and The Black Swan, just to name a few, have consistently topped bestsellers lists. I've read quite a few and I must say that they're definitely very engaging reads. If you haven't sampled these business books, I urge you to just read a few pages. Chances are, you'll be hooked on them too. They're not really business books per se; the points they raise have broad applications and most of them can elicit feelings of "Aha!"

I'm not into self-help books really. The closest thing to a self-help book is one of the books I'm reading now -- YOU: On a Diet. While I've no delusions that this book will make me lose a significant number of my lovehandles, it still is a very interesting read. You see, I have this love-hate relationship with self-help books. Maybe because I already see the issues being discussed in Oprah. Or perhaps it's just my distaste of the idea that I'll get all the help just from a single book. But if self-help books get people to read, then they should be given larger shelf spaces in our bookstores. Let our bookstores order more John Gray, Deepak Chopra, and Dr. Phil.

If you're looking for something intelligent to read and you're feeling adventurous, check out the non-fiction shelves of your favorite bookstores. These are usually found under the Science, History, References, Biographies, Travel, and Special Interest shelves. If your work doesn't allow you that much free time to travel, then read Peter Mayle's wonderful books on Provence. I highly recommend the first one -- A Year in Provence. Toujours Provence is good too, but it sometimes feels overdrawn. If you think science non-fiction books are just like your college textbooks but pricier, then read Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. It's about string theory and how this theory supposedly reconciles quantum theory with relativity and vice versa. Don't be intimidated by the subject matter; Greene's a genius in making the technical and abstract seem uncomplicated and concrete. If you've been checking celebrity cookbooks because of their pictures and recipes, then you'd definitely enjoy Jeffrey Steingarten's compilations of humorous essays entitled The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must Have Been Something I Ate.

I was feeling overwhelmed by Rushdie's Satanic Verses and so I decided to read non-fiction. I went through my reading backlog and picked 6 non-fiction books that I plan to read soon. I've always wanted to read about Marco Polo, so I bought Laurence Bergreen's Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. Maybe I'd finally find out whether Marco Polo was the one responsible for bring pasta to Italy. And speaking of pasta, I also plan to take on Bill Buford's Heat, an account of his time spent being an apprentice to Mario Batali. I bought Shalom Auslander's Foreskin's Lament on a splurge. Basically it's an autobiography, an angry (but funny) autobiography about growing up in a strict religious community. After reading the first page of Pamela Druckerman's Lust in Translation in PowerBooks one day, I knew I just have to buy it. The first page says, "Adultery provokes more outrage in America than in almost any other country on record (Ireland and the Philippines are two exceptions)." Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct and Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan I received as gifts. I've always wanted to have them.