I have a tendency to be over-ambitious when it comes to non-fiction. I’ll pick up a tome on a subject I know little about, full of enthusiasm. I’ll start with great intentions, before realising that while I’m interested in the subject, I’m not that interested.
One strategy I’ve adopted is to look for a podcast where the author discusses the book. Then you can decide whether you’ve heard enough, or you want to know more.
I also find it can be hard to retain information on an unfamiliar subject. By listening to a podcast first, you have an idea of the author’s approach and the key issues, and are able to put what you read in context.
It’s worked well for me. Here are some great non-fiction titles that made the cut.
Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes
In Kindred, archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes humanises (literally) the Neanderthals, bringing together the current knowledge from a range of disciplines. She explains how we know what we do, as well as the questions we can’t yet answer about everything from hunting to art, to family and social life.
Each chapter begins with a vignette which describes a potential moment – from children running on a beach, to hunting horses by a lake. In this way she brings the material vividly to life. She is also aware of how it can be challenging (I am that person she describes who has stood helplessly before a tray of stone tools in a museum thinking that I really should be interested in this) and writes in a way that is accessible but not simplistic.
I enjoyed the audiobook which is narrated by Wragg Sykes herself, particularly after listening to her speak so effectively on the podcast, and feeling like I’d got to know her voice.
The podcast: Little Atoms
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
As a keen gardener, I became aware a few years ago that everyone was talking about mycorrhizal fungi, without quite knowing what it meant. In Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake explains how fungi form symbiotic relationships with plants, distributing nutrients and information in a ‘wood wide web’. But this book is about much more. Neither animal nor plant, able to solve complex problems without a brain, fungi raise fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness and life itself.
Along the way he shows how fungi are crucial in the construction of 2000-year old termite mounds, describes his experience of taking LSD in a clinical trial, and explains how shoes can now be made of mushroom ‘leather’.
Again I listened to the audiobook read by the author — Sheldrake is a great narrator as well as writer, conveying his enthusiasm and energy for his subject.
The podcast: Mushroom Revival Podcast
The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato
In The Value of Everything, Mariana Mazzucato makes a powerful and accessible argument for how in modern capitalism value extraction is rewarded ahead of value creation. Financial institutions, company boards and large shareholders take wealth out of the economy, but the infrastructure and ingenuity that created that wealth is often publicly funded.
She encourages us to question what value is and how we should measure it, then to consider how we can build an economy which offers real value to all of us.
The podcast: Cheerful Book Club
The Year 1000 by Valerie Hansen
In The Year 1000, Valerie Hansen shows how the world around that period was much more connected than the general reader might imagine. For the first time the whole world was connected, via globalisation and trade. It’s quite a short book and wide-ranging but it’s packed with information, for example about the Vikings in the Americas (there is now strong archaeological evidence for their presence in North America and suggestions that they might have been in Mexico).
However, it is most fascinating in its insights into what was happening in China, India, East Africa and Asia. Hansen is a China specialist and she shows how trade routes led to an extensive exchange of goods and ideas from ceramics and aromatics to religion and language.
The podcast: The Medieval Podcast
Ravenna by Judith Herrin
Inspired by the beautiful mosaics in Ravenna, Judith Herrin set out to tell the story of the city in the 5th to 8th centuries. This is a fascinating account of how its strategic location gave rise to its significant role under Roman, Goth and finally Byzantine rule.
Ravenna does assume some prior knowledge (I had to resort to Wikipedia a couple of times) but it’s a fascinating account of the political, social and religious developments. It is lightened for the general reader by the dramatic lives of figures such as Galla Placidia, King Theoderic and Emperor Justinian. Herrin also gives the history and descriptions of the mosaics and buildings in the city (and what has been lost, including in bombing in the Second World War). The pictures in the book are beautiful!
The podcast: Byzantium and Friends
Want to know more about Galla Placidia? I enjoyed this Twitter thread on her fascinating life.
I’m working on a #nonfiction #kidlit #biography of Roman Empress Galla Placidia and I don’t tweet about it nearly enough.— Javier Ruedas (@jruedas1) January 26, 2021
I thought I’d write about the powers at her disposal as empress, which powers were hers alone and which depended on the emperors pic.twitter.com/uQG7XXL1rw