Here’s some faulty middle school logic for you: I was a super dorky kid. Super dorky kids are supposed to be intellectuals. Intellectuals are supposed to read impressive books. They are also supposed to care about politics, listen to interesting music, know stupid trivia, dig computer culture…and understand physics, I suppose, though I knowingly fell flat on that one.
I embraced this so-called intellectual thing pretty hard growing up. I could be the smart kid, right? Never mind that my report card was mediocre at best. Never mind that it took me until the end of high school to even hit the ever-elusive “honour roll.” Never mind that, quantitatively speaking, I did not always live up to the intellectual side of my super dork image. I could still be the smart kid, right? I could compensate for these set backs by hiding failed math tests and regularly using words like “compensate” and “quantitatively.” NO ONE NEEDED TO KNOW.
I played the part pretty well. For one thing, I often claimed to read books that my intellectual alter-ego would be totally into. I was an honest kid, don’t get me wrong, and my attraction to my dad’s heavy non-fiction wasn’t exactly untrue. I was really interested in Pierre Berton’s collected works, and I did really read “Guns, Germs, and Steel” with enthusiasm. Well, I read the first part…of the first chapter. But eventually, these books were all sentenced to hang out and collect dust on my side table.
In my defense, I was fifteen, and bubbly, and dorky. Drinking my weight in diet coke and playing Guitar Hero with my friends took precedent. Looking back, “Vimy” was a cool book and I wish I had given it more of a shot, but otherwise I hardly regret how I spent my teenage years. Best laid plans, carpe diem, etc etc.
I have grown up a bit since then, of course. Developments include me limiting diet coke intake (see also: discovering coffee) and learning to play music on a real instrument, though I still maintain I was far better at caffeinated guitar hero (see also: the glory days). My bedside table of good intentions, which featured a few smart/neglected books, has been upgraded to a full-sized good intentions bookcase headboard. Sure, my record of following through with the reading is much higher, but so are the stakes—this is now a major part of my academic career. I have surrendered to the power of the textbook.
Do I like reading these non-fiction books? Sometimes. Sometimes, they’re dry and awful. Other times, they are in my second language and it makes my head hurt. Mostly, they’re just sorta things I have to read because school says so. But every now and then, I will pick up an academic book on my own accord and ACTUALLY read it through (yes, really). Every now and then, I will find something interesting enough that I will seek to learn more via size 10 Times New Roman print. In, you know, a book. From, you know, the library.
Yes, really. It isn’t common. Most of my reading time is consumed by school. But there are four particular books that I have read through in the last couple years that I can vouch for. These books are genuinely interesting and page-turning despite being super non-fiction. I know for many of you, the distinction of “super non-fiction” isn’t exactly a bad thing. Still, I find that it can so often be boring. These books are anything but.
4) A woman’s place: seventy years in the lives of Canadian women, compiled by Sylvia Fraser
I actually first discovered “A Woman’s Place” in high school, back when I wrote my first paper on Chatelaine magazine. Chatelaine, which you may know as “That magazine my mom gets ’cause it came with our cable plan for some reason,” has been around and appealing to Canadian women for almost 85 years. By Canadian standards, this qualifies as a long-ass time. I’m more than a little partial to anything about Chatelaine, having spent hours marveling over microfilm of the magazine at the archives. No, I’m not still gunning for “smart kid” position, I just like the friggin’ archives. I like seeing history in raw form. But even if your idea of a good time differs from mine, I still recommend checking out Fraser’s timeline of oldschool Chatelaine articles. Reading how women saw themselves, their families, their country, and each other? Really interesting stuff.
The bad news is that “A Woman’s Place” was compiled in 1997, so it’s currently lacking about 15 years of interesting Chatelaine history. The good news is that for what it does cover, this book is amazing. Fraser successfully compiled top images and articles in this book, creating a resource that does more than just tell you how Canadian women lived in the 20th Century– it shows you. If you’re anything like me, you’ll get totally addicted to reading up on the 1940s housewife scene. Relationships, health, employment…not to mention the period when feminist Doris Anderson acted as editor. This woman was so hardcore that she actually turned down the opportunity to publish Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” article because, and I quote, “we had already written about all that stuff.”
Excerpts of Chatelaine are, in my opinion, the most easy-to-read and interesting first-hand account of Canadian women’s culture. After all, this stuff was written with the purpose of entertaining the nation’s ladies. I’m definitely still entertained.
Just like that. Exactly like that. (Sorry, had to.)
3) The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media by Ilana Gershon
I can actually confirm that reading this book has led to so many amazing conversations, ideas, and writings that I’m losing track. After one such conversation the other party, my friend Niki, headed straight to the library to check this book out. She agrees that it’s good. It’s really, really good.
The fact of the matter is that lots of young adults suffer breakups. Older people suffer breakups too, I know, but I can’t really speak to the volume or complexities there. What I can speak to is that in first and second year university, I was surrounded by the pieces of several teenage hearts literally scattered all over the floor. Then people started new relationships, or flings, or whatever worked in between. Lots of falling and hormones hanging around. In short, early twenties relationships can be messy. And the internet only makes it messier. Ilana Gershon seeks to answer the question that so many of us are asking: how does your efacetwittertumblrbook respond when the shit hits the fan in your relationship, exactly? How do relationships, nevermind breakups, even WORK in this new media environment?
I think we are unanimous in realizing that it’s not an easy hurdle. Inspired by Gershon’s investigation on the subject I’ve personally written at bit on the subject. The internet is an exciting tool, but it has a major impact on our interpersonal relationships, especially as they develop. I am increasingly seeing it as a rather big, huge, seemingly overlooked deal–a deal which I am so grateful that Gershon was able to shed some light on. Her insights, based on a large sample of case studies and qualitative research, have definitely placed this book high up on my recommended reads list.
2) “Gods and Guitars: Seeking the Sacred in Post-1960s Popular Music” by Michael J. Gilmour
I was actually really excited when I found this book. My favourite places are usually either music-y and spiritual-y, so when I saw that someone had ventured to write about how the two relate (and I know they do), I was all over it. This book actually had me texting my friends all summer with things like “Dude. You have to read this. I have never considered Bat Out of Hell this way before.”
I am always down for new ways to consider Bat Out of Hell.
For me, the most impressive thing about this book is that Gilmour is strikes an impressive balance of intellectualism and humility in his analysis–basically, the guy is is honest. This sounds really simple, but I have read so many pretentious books in religious studies classes that are so over-the-top opinionated that they actually go full circle back to making no point at all. Gilmour, meanwhile, recognizes the broadness and possible controversy within his topic, the subjectivity of music and religion, and the many lenses through which one could analyze the relationship between the two. He also recognizes his strengths and limitations as a scholar and a music fan–and believe me, Gilmour definitely, definitely has strengths in this department.
Gods and Guitars is remarkably well-researched, with so many references to different songs and texts that my insight on post-1960s popular music pretty much tripled after reading it. By connecting the role music plays in peoples’ lives to spirituality, Gilmour is able to analyze how popular music has shaped our cultural understanding life/death/love/other things that religion has historically addressed. In my case, these connections lead to a whole bunch of “WOAHH” moments during reading. And, of course, those text messages that start with the word “Dude,” which are always a good sign.
1) “Me Funny” and “Me Sexy” by Drew Hayden Taylor.
I could claim to have always had an interest in Native studies, but the reality is that I have several incredible teachers to thank for teaching me to always, always consider Aboriginal perspective and background when looking at Canadian/American history and culture…not just academically, but as a day to day Canadian, period.
I do this pretty actively. I take the classes. I keep up on the news. But after preparing a heart-wrenching high school presentation on Residential Schools, my post-secondary self decided it was time to do something (anything, really) other than chronicle genocide when faced with writing papers for Native studies/Canadian studies/post-colonial history courses.
So I turned my research to jokes and sex. Why not, right? It turns out that Aboriginal heritage in the Americas has lot to offer in both of these fields. In first year, I began the long road of comparing Euro-Christian ideas about sexuality and humour to the cultural ideology held by Aboriginal groups.
Enter books “Me Funny” and “Me Sexy,” which feature essays compiled by Ojibwa humour writer (and generally talented guy) Drew Hayden Taylor. “Me Funny,” is essentially a collection of intelligent, insightful people being funny ABOUT being funny…and you LEARN STUFF, too. I learned a whole lot from this one. My grade 12 Native studies teacher constantly impressed upon us that a truly beautiful and intriguing sense of humour is embedded in indigenous culture, but “Me Funny” brought that realization to a whole new level.
Of course, after “Me Funny” I just had to read “Me Sexy.” Also amazing. “Me Sexy” presents brilliant first-hand essays that are poignant, interesting, controversial and incredibly telling of the many perspectives on the diverse subject of aboriginal sexuality. We’re talking about ideas and identity regarding the body/sexuality/gender which fall so far from the realm of my otherwise Euro-centric perspective that a 13 page paper I once wrote could barely scratch the surface. This book, even, can barely scratch the surface. But it’s one heck of a brilliant 101 course. Overall, these books are a way to gain cultural understanding/appreciation by reading about jokes and sex. Can’t go wrong.
Are you at the library yet?
I know I’m not the only one with a favourite non-fiction read (or four). Almost everyone knows of a page-turner that also qualifies as “learning material.” Like I said, it doesn’t happen everyday–at least, not for me. But when it does, it’s awesome.
For me, the best part is that these are the kinds of books that fuel the most interesting conversations. Here, I’ll start one right now: Read any good books lately?