Even though Nonfiction November has been around for eight years and I have been writing nonfiction book reviews for four, I’ve never thought to participate in this nonfiction-loving event until now. It’s structured with five prompts: one per week, each hosted by a different book blogger. Because I post no more and no fewer than one post a week, and don’t want to miss out on posting my usual content in November, I decided to do them all at once! Or maybe it’s because I am simply a rebel. I think it’s a little bit of both.
Week 1: Your Year in Nonfiction
This prompt was hosted by Rennie at What’s Nonfiction?.
What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?
My new favorite book
My favorite book by far has been Sasha Sagan’s For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World. Reading this honestly felt like a reset in my ongoing exploration of my identity as an atheist and humanist, and of the way that I experience the world. It was the only book I remember reading where I purposely went slowly so that it would not end.
Not only was it a beautiful and moving love letter to our Cosmos, to humanity, and to secular humanism, but it was also a love letter to Sasha’s father Carl Sagan. I have never seen a memoir like this before that seamlessly ties the author’s experiences with those of cultures throughout time and throughout the world, connecting groups of people through the shared origins of our celebrations, our rituals, and our ways of making sense of our vast world. In my review, I wrote,
. . . for those who are searching for meaning in the vastness, and a reason to celebrate everything from waking up each day, to creating new life, to the tilt of the Earth, then in this book, you will find it.
Not to mention that I nearly cried when compiling my favorite quotes from the book. To answer Rennie’s question: I don’t find myself recommending books to friends very often, but I could say I am recommending this to you now! I think For Small Creatures Such as We is an invaluable book for secular humanists, but I would bet that religious readers will find something beautiful to take away as well.
New topics of interest
Outside of Sasha’s book, I’ve been reading a lot more about social issues, racism, and feminism. In the past I was more interested in the grand, metaphysical questions like the existence of God, but you could say this year that I have come more down to Earth, looking at the society around me and my place in it. I wouldn’t say that learning about the injustice in the world has been fun per se, but I see it as my responsibility. That said, it isn’t always doom and gloom. Here are the other books that I’ve rated five stars on Goodreads since last November:
- How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (And Don’t) Say About Human Difference by Adam Rutherford
- Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself by Nedra Glover Tawwab
- Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt
- How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
- Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall
- On Her Knees: Memoir of a Prayerful Jezebel by Brenda Marie Davies
- Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
- How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee by Bart Ehrman
- The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Week 2: Book Pairing
This prompt was hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey.
This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together.
I can’t give too many fiction recommendations, but there are a handful that I’ve read which line up with my nonfiction interests. I enjoyed Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry about an atheist teen at a Catholic high school, as well as the obvious Contact by Carl Sagan. I wanted to like The Peking Man is Missing by Claire Taschdjian, which is her idea of where those vanished fossils went in the form of a novel, but it was obvious that Taschdjian excels more as a scientist than as a novelist. (I instead enjoyed the biography of one of the men involved in the Peking Man scandal, Pierre Tielhard de Chardin.)
Right now, The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel, a story about a human living with a clan of Neanderthals, is on my TBR. I’ve seen copious praise for it on Paleoanthropology Facebook, so I hope it lives up to the hype!
Week 3: Be the Expert / Ask the Expert / Become the Expert
This prompt was hosted by Veronica at The Thousand Book Project.
You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
Be the expert
Speaking of paleoanthropology, or the study of human origins, I’d have to say that that’s my area of expertise (if reading at least three books on a topic makes you an expert. I wish!). So far, I’ve read eight books on it, and I’m currently working on the ninth. I’ve blogged at length about my fascination with human origins, and I wish it was more popular!
I’m drawn to everything from the drama between scientists, the race to find the mythical “missing link,” the hoaxes, the mysteries, the spelunking, the African landscape, and of course, the ever-pressing questions of where we came from, why we are different than our animal relatives, and what that means for who we are! And all the while, I get to use this as my means of debunking creationist pseudoscience. What could be more fun than that?
Become the expert
That said, my taste in reading is a little bit all over the place. This is exacerbated by the fact that I will read a single book, or watch a single TikTok or YouTube video, that will knock me down a rabbit hole and cause me to add more and more books to my wish list all the time.
The latest book to do so for me was Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—from the Babylonians to the Maya by Dick Teresi. The book had its flaws, but it led me to realize that medieval scientific progress in Europe might not have been as nonexistent as we think. I’ve thus gotten two books on this specifically—The Light Ages and God’s Philosophers—and a couple of other books about science history in general.
I was drawn to Lost Discoveries by my new interest in the non-Western, non-rich, non-white history of science, so I’ve been picking up books on that whenever I find them. (In the below pictures, everything but God’s Philosophers and Included in Christ were random finds at my local Half Price Books stores. I love spending my days exploring there.)
The other topic I’d like to dive more into is what I call biblical equality. Some of my favorite YouTubers and best friends are Progressive Christians, so through them I have found interesting insights on the history of bigotry in the church. The bible is rife with problems, of course, and its god is beyond corrupt. However, there might be a couple of things, namely homophobia and misogyny, that are more recent inventions by men who translated and interpreted the bible with their own power and interests in mind. I’m interested to see whether there is any merit to these claims as an atheist without a horse in the race.
Week 4: Stranger than Fiction
This prompt was hosted by Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks.
This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. . . . basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.
It was hard for me to come up with a single answer for this prompt, because I firmly believe that reality is almost always stranger than fiction. But when Christopher included “a look into the natural wonders in our world” in his prompt, I knew I had some good books to share!
Out of the above stack, I’ve only read the two by the Sagans. It was Cosmos that first made me realize that embracing a sense of awe and wonder at our existence in the Cosmos was not futile just because I’m an atheist. I’m still reluctant to use the world spiritual, but there really is something so magical about our natural world that is, in the truest sense of the word, indescribable.
I actually got the chance to ask Sasha Sagan what she thinks about the world “spiritual” in an interview, and she had this to say:
Oh this word! It comes up so frequently. I wouldn’t call myself “spiritual” per se, because the word does connote something a little woo-woo. But I do use it generally. I also use words like sacred, holy, and miraculous because they capture a specific feeling, I think, even when elicited by a scientific understanding of the universe. English is a language that evolved in a monotheistic culture. Because of that, the connotations around these words are monotheistic. But languages evolve. And I think it’s ok to use those words to express our secular awe.
Whatever you call this feeling, it’s something I’m chasing through books. I think this is especially important for me because I’ve spent years reading harsh atheist books and now (sometimes literally) heavy books on racism, sexism, Christian nationalism, and so many other societal ills. Sometimes it’s necessary for me to stop and read something to unwind and contemplate how the Universe can take my breath away.
Week 5: New to My TBR
This prompt was hosted by Jaymi at The OC Bookgirl.
It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR?
Many of the books I’ve listed can be found in a recent post I made that essentially gave my entire to-be-read list. This is part of a new reading challenge that I unintentionally created for myself in March where I posted a list of 15 books that I wanted to read, then I simply stuck to the list until I’d read—or at least tried to read—the whole stack. I’m only one book into my second leg of this challenge, so that post has my whole TBR list in one place!
Of course, even in the month since listing everything I want to read next, I’ve been to a handful of book sales and bookstores where I’ve found even more reads, both old and new.
I learned from my first 15-book list not to include books that I didn’t already own. I have so many that I don’t need to go out and get more just to complete a list that I arbitrarily created. So there are actually a lot of books on my current shopping list, which I’m trying my best not to buy until I’ve gotten through more that I own.
Even though I didn’t mention it in the Become the Expert prompt, I’ve become more willing to continue reading about Christian nationalism. I’ve already read two books on it, and they wore me down to the point that I didn’t think I could look at another book on the religious right. Recently, though, I’ve gotten really into the YouTube channel Fundie Fridays which dedicates each video to a different person or sect of Christian fundamentalism. On her channel, Jen has deemed a handful of books on these topics as must-reads, so I couldn’t resist adding them to my list.
My current wish list (which I compile on Thriftbooks for convenience) includes:
- Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
- The Girl Explorers: The Untold Story of the Globetrotting Women Who Trekked, Flew, and Fought Their Way Around the World by Jayne Zanglein
- Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism and Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell
- Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
- Republican Jesus: How the Right Has Rewritten the Gospels by Tony Keddie
- The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr
Looking at my book wish list honestly makes me so excited. I’m probably going to end up buying at least one of these books by the end of the week.
A quick note on book buying
I wanted to note that my links in book titles are to my reviews of them and not to affiliate links. I don’t think there is anything wrong with using affiliate links, but I prefer to encourage readers to shop at your local bookstore. I know I’m late to the game, but only this week I realized that the IndieBound website is an amazing resource for finding local bookstores to shop from! Bookshop is also a great way to support local booksellers.
At the moment I’m trying to avoid buying new books online due to the supply chain shortage, so I encourage you to buy used or visit a shop in person if you can. For used books, I love using Thriftbooks and Half Price Books because of their great prices. As always, I encourage you to support your local library as well! (They might even have some great book sales if you prefer to buy!)
I realized while writing this that taking part in Nonfiction November is a ton of fun! I hope that the book community will find some inspiration in my lists and stacks of books. I’ve definitely enjoyed reading other people’s posts and seeing what’s popular right now. I can’t wait to participate again next year and see where my reading takes me!