It is easy to dismiss non-fiction as dense, complex, and boring, full of inaccessible jargon that makes reading more of a chore than anything else. While that may be true in many cases (as I’m sure those forced to suffer through critical readings will attest), there is some great non-fiction out there that is genuinely enjoyable. As we are in the midst of deadline and exam season at the moment, I’m sure that a lot of us will be looking for a way to unwind either now, as a way to procrastinate, or once the academic pressure starts to ease off. And so, here are a few recommendations that will hopefully help you relax, and maybe even learn something too.
Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer
If you have ever found yourself romanticising Paris and its literary and cultural scene, then this is the book for you. Actually, even if you have never found yourself daydreaming of strolls along the Seine, I would still recommend that you give this a go. The book recounts the time spent by journalist Jeremy Mercer living in the world-famous Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. While this initially sounds like something of a dream come true, Mercer doesn’t shy away from the terrible living conditions and questionable elements of the situation, with the allure of Paris tempered by the mouldy food and murder investigations that he finds himself dragged into.
There is some great non-fiction out there that is genuinely enjoyable
The plot itself is interesting and strange enough to keep you reading on, however the true highlight has to be the focus on the bookshop’s history, its strange traditions and the host of famous authors who have passed through its doors. While much of the subject matter is far from lighthearted the book never feels weighed down by anything too serious, and although having some general literary knowledge would come in handy with this one, it is by no means essential.
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Another literary-themed recommendation! This collection of letters exchanged between author Helene Hanff and the employees of the Marks & Co. bookshop is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, with little in the way of a formal plot, but lots in the way of character. This is a really quick read, and if you enjoy it then you will be pleased to know there is a sequel; Hanff’s memoir The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street recounts her subsequent visit to London, with familiar faces making appearances.
Perhaps a bit of a rogue entry compared to my other recommendations. Neither a memoir nor literature related, this book does pretty much what it says on the tin. Vronksy explores serial killers over the ages, different theories of what makes a killer, and peppers in some horrifying personal accounts too. As long as you’re not too easily spooked then this is a great read if you are at all interested in psychology or history.
The books I have listed are a very limited selection, and are really just some of the most recent examples that I have enjoyed in my attempts to read outside of the hefty demands of my course reading lists. Here are a few other authors that I would really recommend if you are wanting to delve into non-fiction.
Famous for his travel books, Bryson’s writing is perceptive and quick. If you are looking for a shorter read, his collection of essays Notes From A Big Country recounts the author’s return to the US after living in the UK; full of cultural observations and the insanity of American consumerism. Many of the essays pack an emotional punch too. I have read this collection over and over, and it never fails to deliver.
Known for her fiction, Dickens’ biographical novels on her stints working as a nurse, journalist, and domestic servant offer a fascinating look into the world of the mid-twentieth century. While often hilarious, with Dickens recounting the ridiculous situations she finds herself in, these books also have much darker moments (particularly in My Turn To Make The Tea).
I hope that these recommendations might make non-fiction seem a little less daunting. All of these books and authors need no subject-specific knowledge to enjoy, and require very little brain power (already heavily depleted by this point in the year) to understand. Happy reading!