Nonfiction

The Social Animal by David Brooks

The Social Animal by David Brooks

The Social Animal, by David Brooks, is a non-fictional account of the social lives of human beings. It looks deep into the human psyche in order to discover the motives for human actions. The story follows Erica and Harold, a fictional couple, through their entire lifespans. This includes a full examination of growth and development that starts in utero and expands over their lifetimes. Harold and Erica's relationship shows an array of longitudinal information that follows their relationship and explores such disciplines as psychology, sociology, politics, and history in an engaging approach to the social sciences.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond reviews parts of history in order to theorize how different cultures became civilization's haves and how others became its have-nots. Diamond is a biologist, and here he seeks to explain why Eurasians--rather than Native Americans, Africans, and Native Australians--became successful conquerors. Diamond argues that rather than race and culture, factors such as food production and animal domestication allowed Eurasians to economically dominate the world.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Nickel and Dimed is the story of veteran journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s investigation into low-wage America. Before she left her normal life to pursue this project, she already knew something of the problems that these workers endure because of her research into other social issues. Ehrenreich had suggested to the editor of Harper’s Magazine that someone should do an investigative piece about this group, but she never thought at the time that she would be the person to dig deep into the lives of the working poor in America.

Rose in a Storm by Jon Katz

Rose in a Storm by Jon Katz

Trinity, our greyhound mix, was a natural leader. She would break up cat fights by putting her head between the fighting cats.  Whenever there was dissent among our dogs, she would stare them down until they retreated. When our cat was dying and had to sleep in the bathroom the night before she took her final trip to the vet, Trinity slept on the other side of the door. We had no idea what a positive effect she had on the dynamics of our household until she passed away. Now the cats fight right next to one of our dogs' heads and they just lie there looking at them as if to say, “Will you look at that!”

The novel Rose in a Storm is Jon Katz's first fiction in 10 years. Jon Katz usually writes nonfiction books about his farm, Bedlam Farm, an hour outside of Albany, NY, where ironically, his lead farm dog is named Rose. It is a wonderful example of how a little book can be so much more than the reader expects. The book is written from Rose’s perspective. Rose is the best farm dog in the county, and her reputation is so good that other farmers have borrowed Rose when they have had problems on their farms. She and Sam, the farmer, share an excellent non-verbal bond as they work the farm on a daily basis. But their life is turned upside down when a catastrophic blizzard envelops the farm and all of the animals that they have are in danger of freezing to death or being attacked by coyotes.

The Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol

The Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol

The Shame of the Nation tries to explain the troubles within America's inner-city schools. Jonathan Kozol--a writer, teacher, and activist--explores 60 different schools in order to see firsthand the physical and mental conditions of America's educational system. There, he finds an epidemic in which school systems allow some students to fall behind the curriculum. He looks at how the country went from separate but equal schools to desegregation and back to segregated schools.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

If you’re in the mood for a harrowing reality check, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is the antidote to your craving. Postman’s revelatory book was initially published in the 1980s, but his exploration of America’s preoccupation with entertainment is still sharp and pertinent. And it has retained its power to make us re-think the role of technology in our everyday lives.

Throughout Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman questions how the content of our culture has been radically altered by the emergence of new media. As he states, “our notions of truth and our ideas of intelligence have changed as a result of new media displacing the old.” The assertion that cultural practices and technologies constantly influence and respond to one another might seem like a value neutral observation, but as Postman delves deeper into his analysis, it becomes obvious that he views the shift from the Age of Exposition (text-based communication) to the Age of Show Business (image-based communication) as a profoundly problematic and troubling phenomenon.

Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

Most people know David Byrne as a musician, with the Talking Heads and as a solo artist. In his three-decade career, Byrne always managed to incorporate a diverse collection of international influences in his sound.  In Bicycle Diaries, he has found an equally engaging role as a worldwide cultural critic. The book is much more than a travelogue though. It is a grand celebration of how people live, observed from the seat of a two-wheeler as it whisks through city streets worldwide. It is made up of meditations on art, politics, architecture, and so much more.

When biking through a city, one is more agile than a car, faster than a pedestrian, and taller than anything that isn't a Hum-Vee or on horseback. You see details that others can not, providing a wholly unique perspective of how this particular city works.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts

It's 1933 and President Roosevelt is having a devil of a time finding someone to appoint to the post of ambassador to Germany in Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. All of the usual picks politely decline the post, as news of Germany’s foreboding political atmosphere drifts to America. Roosevelt eventually settles on William E. Dodd, a historian at the University of Chicago whose primary goal is to finish his multi-volume historical treatise on the antebellum South before he dies. By most accounts, Dodd is an odd pick for ambassador, being neither rich nor well-connected. Most ambassadors entertain lavishly during their appointments, and it is expected that the costs will come from their own coffers. Frugal Dodd immediately made waves by pledging to live solely on his meager income, almost unheard of in cosmopolitan Berlin.

Dodd naively sees the appointment as a respite from the trials of University department chairmanship and a boon of time to work on his project. He, like most Americans, is grossly uninformed about the political machinations happening in Germany, as Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels vie for power and German Jews are increasingly menaced. The entire Dodd family decides to come along to Berlin, ready for a new lark: the professor and his wife, Mattie, their son, William Jr., and their beautiful, flirtatious, 24-year-old daughter, Martha (who happens to also be fleeing the wreckage of a precipitous marriage to a banker).

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg

Alex & Me cover

Years ago when researchers were in heated debates about whether or not animals can think, I could have told them that they do.  When I was first married I had an incredible dog named Doctor. One day when I was young and stupid, I had a knock on my door.  There was a man standing outside my door whom I didn’t recognize, so I locked my screen door to keep my dog in and stepped outside to see what this man wanted.  He began to ask me some very bizarre questions about the neighborhood. He kept stepping back to draw me away from my front door. Suddenly I found that I had gone into my front yard to talk to this strange young man. Red flags were going off in my brain at this point. He was about to ask me another odd question when he suddenly stopped and said, “I have to go.” He turned around and walked quickly away. I thought, “What a strange man that was!”  When I turned around I discovered that Doctor had jumped up, unhooked the screen door, and was sitting behind me with his lips curled back in a silent growl. Evidently, he thought that the man was odd also.

 When my husband bought me Alex & Me, by Irene Pepperberg, last year and gently said, “I think that you would like this," I politely thanked him and stubbornly put it on the shelf.  A year later I picked it up and now I grudgingly have to admit that he was correct.  I do love this book!

If you like The Power of Babel by John McWhorter

 The Power of Babel by John McWhorter

This readalike is in response to a patron's book-match request. If you would like personalized reading recommendations, fill out the book-match form and a librarian will email suggested titles to you. Available for adults, teens, and kids.  You can browse the book matches here.

The Power of Babel by John McWhorter: There are approximately 6000 languages on earth today, the descendants of the tongue first spoken by homo sapiens some 150,000 years ago. How did they all develop? What happened to the first language? In this irreverent romp through territory too often claimed by stodgy grammarians, McWhorter ranges across linguistic theory, geography, history, and pop culture to tell the fascinating story of how thousands of very different languages have evolved from a single, original source in a natural process similar to biological evolution. While laying out how languages mix and mutate over time, he reminds us of the variety within the species that speaks them, and argues that, contrary to popular perception, language is not immutable and hidebound, but a living, dynamic entity that adapts itself to an ever-changing human environment." (Catalog Summary")

If you like The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, you may also like these selections.

The Beginning of Language: Opposing Viewpoints by Clarice Swisher
Discusses historical, philosophical, and scientific theories about the mysterious origins of human language. (catalog summary)

Empires of the World: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
Head of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, Ostler draws on his extensive study and research, mostly into now dead languages, to trace the history of the world's major languages. Language is always linked to a particular time and place, he says, but at the same time it is a unbroken link to all people in all times, and has played a larger role in history than any prince or economy. First he considers early languages that became dominant in certain areas or by migration, then more recent ones that have spread throughout the world by colonialism.(catalog summary)