In Defence of Non-Fiction: Five Books to Make You Think

Photo by Raquel Reyes.

Photo by Raquel Reyes.

As an English literature student, I’m the first person to put a non-fiction book aside and start a novel instead, telling myself I’ll get around to it later. Recently, however, I’ve been rediscovering the genre, and there’s nothing better than finding a work of non-fiction written as beautifully as fiction, plotted as carefully as a crystalline short story. It’s much easier than you might think. Rebecca Solnit, Rachel Carson, Mary Oliver, Robert Macfarlane, Pankaj Mishra, the recently published Tara Westover… all write or have written non-fiction that I return to again and again, due to the way that it challenges and enthrals me as a reader. Here are five of the non-fiction books I’ve loved over the last couple of months. 

Kristen Ghodsee’s Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism

“Unregulated capitalism is bad for women, and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives,” argues Kristen Ghodsee, an ethnographer of Eastern Europe. Ghodsee explodes stereotypes about Eastern European countries and communism, pointing out, for example, that East German women flooding into West Germany after 1989 made it possible for West German women to work because they “demand[ed]” the crèches and kindergartens they’d had before, reminding us that the Soviet Union was the first country in the world to let women fly on combat missions and also home to critics who explored the commodification of female sexuality. Each chapter is headed with a picture and brief description of a woman who thrived under or worked towards socialism… and whilst you’ll recognise some names, like Rosa Luxemburg’s, you’re also certain to discover new ones, such as Inessa Armand’s. The book is encouraging for all those young people Ghodsee addresses, within the US and outside, the ones increasingly attracted by the socialist policies of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, the ones who’ve grown up knowing nothing but capitalism, austerity implemented. She says, “the Cold War ended. Just like that,” reminding even her most sceptical readers that though twentieth century “experiments with communism failed,” there are important lessons to be learned, too, from them, not least how political change can happen overnight. 

Lane Moore’s How to Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don't

“Be the idiot who cares too much, be the weirdo who makes a difference, be the person who, even if you never know it, kept someone from wanting to die because you smiled at them on the street. And in that way, in the smallest of ways, you’re a little less alone.”

I read How to Be Alone one morning on a train from the small French town where I live at the moment to Paris and from there to London. I felt suspended – between languages, between cultures, between parts of my life – and as if the choice I was making to travel back home was admitting defeat, proof that I wasn’t as utterly independent as I was attempting to be. But How to Be Alone, which I’d bought on a whim after seeing some post on Instagram, was exactly what I needed. Your twenties – and I’m sure your thirties, too – are often painted as the best years of your life, ones in which you have little responsibility and masses of friends and few problems. In reality, your twenties can also be some of the most isolating, alienating years, ones in which you question everything about yourself and about the choices you’ve made, especially when it comes to moving away from the people you’ve grown up with and beginning to build, to choose your own family. Everyone is at such different stages – some people you remember with braces revising for their school exams have children or engagement rings,  while some are struggling through new jobs in strange new cities, and others happily going at their own pace.

Moore herself has particularly unique circumstances: she grew up in an abusive home, and by the age of twenty was completely estranged from her family. She had lived in her car and was still struggling to make meaningful connections with others, when it seemed like everyone around her had groups of friends they’d known since childhood or met at university and never looked back. Still, she persevered. She got jobs she enjoyed, remarkable jobs, and continued to date – an act of courage in itself for someone who’d learnt not to trust people. She talks about surviving holidays alone and the joy of TV, how it offers you the choice between which families you want to spend those holidays with. Moore’s resilience paid off: she’s now a comedian, creator of Tinder Live, and a singer and writer (and proud dog mom – who wouldn’t be with a dog as cute as hers?). 

As I read, I sat on a bench waiting for the train desperately trying not to cry in public (“By Gare du Nord I sat down and wept” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it), but also choking back laughter a little too loud for a station early in the morning surrounded by tired commuters. I felt giddy after reading this hilarious, brave, and honest book, and, unsurprisingly, a lot less alone, as if I’d just chatted for hours on the phone with a best friend. 

Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse 

After living in five very different cities, after negotiating the trains in Tokyo and following Virginia Woolf’s paths across London, after growing up in New York, falling in love in Paris and studying in Venice, Elkin’s the right person to give voice to the flâneuse, the woman who strikes out on her own to learn, read, and create cities of her own making. After wandering cities with Elkin, you’ll find yourself wanting to wander further and further: I finished reading wanting to read Marta Gellhorn’s travel writing (the ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway who divorced him when he thought her travelling was getting in the way of her being a “wife in [his] bed”) and to look up her photographs, to watch Agnes Varda films, and to reread Jean Rhys’ work. Elkin’s writing is evidence that the act of being a flâneuse does not just involve the roaming of cities but travelling through literature and discovering ideas, uncovering books that have been overlooked as you might stumble across an old quartier you’ve never noticed before – reading for women was once as transgressive an act as walking the streets alone was. 

Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness 

“Because millions of years is a long time and I don’t want to let the universe down”

The Opposite of Lonelinessis a collection of both fiction and non-fiction by the young woman made famous by her eponymous article going viral after her sudden death in a car crash five days after graduation, at once stunning and tragic. Marina Keegan had an undeniable talent and her non-fiction particularly will resonate with those who are just beginning to make their way in the world after college or university, something I want to do with half the creativity, integrity, and curiosity that rings through every line of her work. 

Nell Steven’s Mrs Gaskell and Me

“What does it mean to be lovesick for an imaginary friend?”

I’ve been a fan of Nell Steven’s work since I read her first work, Bleaker House. After she finished her MFA, Stevens was given the chance to choose to work and live anywhere in the world, all expenses paid. She rejected the idea of sunning herself in Spain, working on her tan as she wrote or  even of going to a city famous for its writing community. Instead, she exiled herself to Bleaker Islands in the Falklands, where she froze, starved, and desperately trying and failing to eke out the novel she’d been wanting to write for years. I’d never laughed so much. In Mrs Gaskell and Me, Stevens returns to the form she’s made her own, part memoir, part biography and part fiction, as she recounts the years she spent working on a PhD about Elizabeth Gaskell while falling in love, finding strange parallels along the way between her own trajectory and the author’s. If anything, I might admire this work even more than I did Bleaker House. It’s just as funny and just as honest, and it’s also a love letter to a writer who, despite the intervening time period, helped Stevens through some of her hardest years, in the vein of Samantha Ellis’ How to Be a Heroine.  

Next up: I’m currently reading and loving The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell and relishing every line of Figuring by Maria Popova, the creator of Brainpickings, as she writes a history of ideas, placing scientists alongside authors, time period against time period and stars against autumn leaves. 

Tilly Nevin completed her degree in English literature at the University of Oxford last year and plans to do an MA in Comparative Literature next year. After finishing her degree, she moved first to Germany for an editorial internship and then to France, where she divides her time between teaching overexcited children, city hopping on trains, trying to learn new languages and attempting to find the perfect café in which to lead the life of a young French existentialist (with more cake involved).