Do you ever notice how fast December flies by? It’s like a freakin’ Concorde, how fast it whooshes by… BUT. It’s still December, and today our Featured Author Brent Weeks swings by to share his top five non-fiction titles of 2012. I’ll let him tell you all about them…
My Five Favorite Non-Fiction Books I Read This Year
by Brent Weeks
An odd paradox hits the career novelist: all of us, I assume, got into this business because we love reading, but the longer you write, the harder it is to read your colleagues. Reading is no longer pure entertainment. You’re analyzing, weighing what the writer is doing — and whether they’re doing it well! Reading a book for fun can become an emotionally exhausting experience for reasons that have nothing to do with the story. “He really just did that?! And people think this book is good?! Outrageous!” Or conversely, “Wow, that was beautiful. I don’t think I could ever pull off something that good. I should just quit writing now and see if my brother Duane will let me join his garbage truck route.”
Conversely, even as your expertise grows, your chances to share your critical opinions shrink. Unless part of your schtick is getting in literary feuds, you realize that unlike say, commenting on a movie star’s performance (which she will never hear and wouldn’t care about anyway), when you comment on a book in your own genre, there’s a good chance you’ll meet the author someday. In many cases, that guy is just hoping to quit his day job someday and write full time. Your devastating critique? Not helpful. And heck, he might get better! And truth to tell, I’ve met authors I like quite a lot whose books don’t do anything for me, or who have a philosophy of writing I simply disagree with.
So, that leaves me as Thumper: silent except when I have books to rave about.
All this is preface to why a fantasy author is writing a list of non-fiction books. Now, to the list:
1) The Story of the Malakand Field Force by Winston Churchill.
I knew Churchill was clever and a helluva speaker, a keen intellect with a stubborn streak. What I didn’t know is that the guy could write. This book is about a British military expedition in Afghanistan, and is doubtless required reading at some war colleges now. It’s fairly depressing to see how little has changed over there, apparently.
I always prefer to read primary sources when I study history — that is, the people who were there. Some may find some of this offensive. Churchill is quite willing to judge other cultures in ways that are quite un-PC. It’s not a thrill-a-minute read (though compared to other histories written around the same time, it is!), but there are nuggets of gold here. Did you know that the British used to not award any medals posthumously? Churchill pointed out how ridiculous this was: a man’s heroism could well be why he died, and it ought to be recognized. And he got it changed.
2) Creators: From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney by Paul Johnson.
Paired mini-biographies of some of the greatest creative minds of history. I once had a professor who said, “Any knowledge that can’t be shared at a cocktail party is useless.” This book will give you fodder for a year’s worth of cocktail parties. Okay, if you’re like me, that’s approximately one, but still. Not only will you learn cool things about the creators themselves — Picasso was really a horrible, horrible person; you can hate his art and feel good about yourself — but you’ll also learn quite a bit about forms of art you aren’t familiar with. Woodcutting? The Durer chapter is great. Dressmaking? Thought it would be a snooze, but the Balenciaga chapter is awesome.
Paul Johnson is an older guy who’s met a ton of fascinating people; his name-dropping added something for me, but some find it annoying. Some don’t like that the list is almost exclusively male, and mostly European or American. If you think he’s saying this is a definitive list of all the great creators, sure, that would be offensive. He’s not saying that. It’s a very small list of some great creators by a guy who has strong opinions. I think that makes it more valuable, not less.
3) Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry by Bernard Lewis.
When you say “slavery” in America, most people immediately think of chattel slavery based on race as practiced in the American South, and the all the horror and devastation from that practice that continue even to this day. However, slavery has been practiced in many forms in, well, pretty much every society on Earth until the 1850’s — and it still continues in many parts of the world to this day. From previous study, I knew that in the ancient world (specifically Greece and Rome) slavery did not have a strong racial component: they each looked down on everyone who wasn’t them, but didn’t rate better to worse on a skin-lightness scale. (Some African kingdoms were praised by Herodotus, for example, while some nearby red-haired pale-skinned tribes like Boetians were condemned.) Turns out this is a pretty universal experience. Lewis quotes an Iraqi poet who compares Europeans to uncooked dough, southern Africans to burnt bread, and (of course!) Iraqi themselves as the perfect men, not only in skin tone, but in all the natural attributes one could wish for.
Less amusing is most of the rest of this sad history. I feel that Lewis is fair to Islam, noting where x or y is condemned in the Koran or hadithas (for instance, the taking of fellow Muslims to be slaves) and how various judges proclaimed these teachings should be interpreted, but he also shows how this played out in the real world. Turns out there are men in every religion who ignore their religion whenever it gets in the way of their greed or lust. It’s interesting to see how religious ideals ran into social prejudices: those who’d joined the Prophet earlier versus later, the conquerors and the conquered (who were supposed to be treated as brothers, but the conquerors felt they should be extra respected because hey, they won, right?).
There are some heartbreaking quotes in here, like from an African Muslim poet serving in an Arab Muslim court who pens a poem about how he knows he’s ugly because his skin is dark, but he wishes the woman he loves would look past it. Ouch.
4) Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maass.
I always start with the disclaimer: Don is my agent. However, I chose Don because he has such a phenomenal understanding of Story, and what makes them work. I knew he would help make me a better writer, which is ultimately what determines your longevity in this business.
This book is full of exercises for you to do. Don makes YOU do the work. This isn’t paint-by-numbers and you’ll have a best seller. This book challenges you to find what you really believe, to dig deep, and to put it on the page in ways that are meaningful. I’ve written several New York Times best sellers, and this book is helping me make my next book better. It’s hard work, by the way!
5) Meditations On Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence by Sgt. Rory Miller.
A prison guard and accomplished martial artist, the man knows his stuff, from first-hand experience. He has a number of books all on the same theme. It all drips with authenticity. Great for writers, you get little tidbits like once he got hit in the back of the head with a crowbar and it didn’t phase him, but another time an open hand slap in the back of his head left him throwing up for days. Real life is weird.
This is a contemplative book, though, and I value it for that. You also get a nice discussion of the kind of people who routinely commit violence for resource collection and different kinds of social settings where people amp themselves up to do violence they wouldn’t normally do — and how to deal with each. The signature quote: “It is better to avoid than to run; better to run than de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die.” Worth re-reading.
Well, Mr. Weeks. I don’t read non-fiction, but will admit that you’ve piqued my curiosity on some of these titles. Somebody help me NOT pick them up — I so cannot add to Mt. TBR! My bookshelves will revolt, and the books already there will most likely mutiny…
What about y’all — do you read non-fiction? What do you think of Brent Weeks’ list?