The formula is simple: 1) identify why you life has been difficult 2) formulate a theory around how this is evidence of vast injustice 3) Expound upon the ways in which others made your life hell 4) appear heroic by detailing how you overcame this awful state of affairs.
I propose that good nonfiction should be of an entirely different form. It should: 1) identify events, situations, or people 2) that highlight an recurring theme in human behavior 3) that is engaging/entertaining and 4) provides us with a deeper understanding of the entire human condition (as opposed to micro segments such as dyslexic, transgender, Maori, double amputees with alcoholic parents).
Since I value being part of the solution rather than merely complaining about the problem, I have composed a very short list of outstanding non-fiction that I read in 2015. There is far more interesting history than we have time to read about; why spend time on piffle? Death comes too soon and who wants to be laying there in our final hours thinking "I never understood why Thomas Edison started electrocuting people and elephants publicly!" And really, do you want to go to a cocktail party without understanding the medicinal benefits of surgically installing goat testicles into your abdomen? (and how this led to the career of Wolfman Jack?--seriously, it did.)
Learning about the world is immensely fun and helps to frame what is going on around us. Plus reality is far better at generating a good story than some poxy author crippled by self pity and anger writing post modernist fiction.
While the central focus of this story is Thomas Edison publicly electrocuting a beloved circus elephant on Coney Island, it manages to weave a story that includes most of the major currents in late 19th century American Society. The lives of P.T. Barnum, Tesla, JP Morgan, Westinghouse, Edison and others anchor a story about the madness of the late 1800's. I don't think one can properly understand America without knowing this story.
Elephants and electricity meet both at the circus, and at the war between Edison and Tesla. In the circus, Elephants provide a sort of meter that measures the worldliness of rural americans who are being introduced to the broader world through electric lights (far before Edison showed up) and Elephants. And electricity is the technological innovation that is driving the transformation of the continent.
Edison, who wanted DC current to be predominant, was losing the was to Tesla's AC/DC current. Using his inventive mind, he struck upon a plan: just a being Guillotined became synonymous with beheading, he would make electrocution synonymous with AC/DC current by getting the press to refer to getting electrocuted as "getting Westinghouse". Not willing to wait for random accidents to occur, he convinced NY state to electrocute a criminal, and then, in what could only be called a snit of maniacal proportions, electrocuted and elephant.
Fascinating reading. a story far more bizarre than any fiction. It should be required reading for every American.
In the era before adoption of the scientific method in medicine, there was patent medicine, aka snake oil. Without governing bodies, people looking to profit by miracle cures concocted a dizzying array of medical treatments that were, at best pointless; at worst, they were deadly.
In this anything-goes world, it made perfect sense that someone would start surgically implanting goat testicles into aging men to increase their virility. But the story is oh so much larger than just that.
Like Tiopsy, this is one of the historical accounts that is about one small aspect of 19th century society, but explains how we got to the modern world. It will also seem eerily familiar to people who have followed modern day miracle cures such as colloidal silver and tea tree oil. There is truly nothing new under the sun. The only difference is that we send more people to jail these day.
Tinder and the hookup culture are often bemoaned. We see a decline in marriage rates, the erosion of the traditional family and often blame it on something handy like a dating app, or Hollywood.
But this si why we have statistics, is it not? to identify causes and correlations without speculative narratives?
The author looks at how the gender imbalance in the dating pool drives all manner of societal changes. Specifically he looks at how the dominance of women in universities has changed dating culture. In short, his hypothesis is that when women went from 40% of college students nationally to 60%, it created a surplus of college educated women in society. Women's disinclination to marry men with less education, coupled with this imbalance has led to a situation most men would consider pretty damn good; lots of women competing for a small population of men.
He compares cities with different demographics, and also populations of animals with different male/female ratios to support his belief that this surplus of available women decreases the marriage rate, increases promiscuity and is far more responsible for the changes we see than an app like Tinder.
Whether or not you are in the dating pool, this is a great example of how to thoughtfully approach a question with data (as opposed to going with good-sounding theories.)
We forget that the initial pilgrims faced a very hostile environment in the colonies. They were not well armed, well trained, nor well prepared. The native Americans were not particularly welcoming. In fact, the indians widely practiced slavery in ways that would make Confederate supporters blush. A great read to wash away to fictional stories we were taught in grammar school.
the Library at Alexandria probably contained Calculus. Had it survived, we would have had a 1000 year jump on Newton. That ancient man was making steam engines in Roman times mystifyingly gets no press. Everyone should know this.
Bernie Sanders believes that the Scandinavian countries represent the perfect ideal of western economics. Others disagree. The author, living in Denmark with 75% income tax(!) decides to travel around and give a first person account. Entertaining if nothing else.