My father always says “you’re never too old to learn”. I’m still a spring chicken (and I’ll deny any evidence to the contrary), but even I can see the wisdom in that. I sure as heck learned a lot reading and reviewing Frankissstein earlier this week. My bookish partner-in-crime, Cathal, read that book and worked on that review alongside me. I learned that just because a book is marketed as a “trans novel” doesn’t make it so (in fact, it should probably make you more suspicious than anything), that identifying as queer doesn’t give you unique access to all queer experiences, that undeniable writing talent isn’t enough to make a good book… the list goes on and on. In that spirit, I’ve decided to put together this list of books that will teach you something new.
In some ways, every book will teach you something, regardless of its genre, quality, or content. I tried to cap this list at an even dozen, but more and more books that will teach you something new kept jumping out at me, and I just couldn’t help myself.
DON’T SCROLL PAST THIS EXTENDED INTRODUCTION TO GET STRAIGHT TO THE GOODS! I see you! Before we get stuck in, I want to highlight a few books that will speak more accurately to the LGBTIQ+ experience than Frankissstein did or could. It seems only fair that I stick them front and center, don’t you think? Cathal and I discussed it, and concluded that recommended reading would include The Stonewall Reader, Queer There And Everywhere, and Growing Up Queer In Australia. Now, go forth and do some book learnin’!
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Let’s start with the granddaddy of books that will teach you something new: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. As the title suggests, it contains… well, a short history of nearly everything. Even though it was first published about fifteen years ago (and still refers to Pluto as a planet, whoops!), this bad boy is still chockers full of fun and relevant facts that you won’t be able to resist sharing around the water cooler. I know that I annoyed my friends and family for WEEKS with insights into geology, biology, evolutionary psychology, physiology, universeology (okay, that’s not the real name, but I was on a roll there). I’ll happily make a personal guarantee that this book will teach you something new, AND you’ll have fun while you’re doing it. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.
The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
In a former life, I was a psychology student (in fact, I got First Class Honours, thank you very much). Throughout the duration of my degree, and for years afterwards, I always took the Rosenhan experiment as read. A brilliant psychiatrist sent a bunch of people into psychiatric hospitals with feigned benign symptoms, and they were all diagnosed with stigmatising mental illnesses and fed huge quantities of psychoactive medication, thus proving that psychiatric diagnosis was biased and basically bullshit. Right?
Wrong. Susannah Cahalan called into question everything I thought I “knew” about that experiment, and the years of psychiatric research that has come off the back of it. Don’t mistake me: The Great Pretender isn’t some quacky conspiracy-theorist psychiatry hit job, but it is a critical examination of the field of psychiatry and its fallibility. Not only did this book teach me a great deal about a field I thought I already “knew”, it taught me a lot about questioning the sources of my own knowledge and not taking for granted my own critical thinking.
In My Skin by Kate Holden
I’ve read a lot – a lot – about the history and lived experience of sex work undertaken by women, and In My Skin by Kate Holden remains the very best of all. Perhaps it’s because it was one of the very first (I read it when I was in my mid-teens, though I’ve re-read it many times since then), and it’s probably the book that prompted/shaped my interest and understanding of this subject at an influential time in my life. Holden doesn’t hold her fire. She doesn’t shy away from cliches or stereotypes where they are, in her case, true (she was addicted to heroin for the majority of her career as a sex worker), but she also works to dismantle the prejudices and misconceptions that are still so widespread about this industry.
I credit this book with not only being an incredible piece of writing, and not only with teaching me about a way of life with which I was not at all familiar, but with teaching me how to empathise with people who made decisions I couldn’t understand or life choices I wouldn’t make for myself. It has become a pillar of the contemporary #ownvoices SW canon, with very good reason.
On Writing by Stephen King
On Writing could easily replace most high-school or first-year writing and communications classes (at the very least, it should be assigned reading for them all). I think, perhaps, the reason that it’s not is that Stephen King has long been unfairly maligned in academia as a “genre” writer. Because his books have ghosts and ghouls, they’re not “real” literature, and as such his memoir-slash-self-help-guide to writing well couldn’t POSSIBLY have anything worthy to teach us… Obviously, that’s complete nonsense.
Even if you have no interest in “being a writer”, there’s still much you can learn from this book. King offers insights into the nature of determination, motivation, persistence, and resilience. And I have no doubt that you’ll call his style advice to mind when you’re writing an email or a book review blog (ahem). It’s a concise guide to writing and to overcoming obstacles, without the gimmicky nonsense that too-often populates the “self help” section.
Bonus recommendation: If you’re interested in writing, or in creativity, or in simply living your life better and looking at things a different way, you should definitely check out Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. Or, failing that, you can watch her TED talk.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Citizen: An American Lyric is perhaps one of the most mind-bending books I’ve read in recent years (and that includes A Brief History Of Time and other traditionally-intense tomes). It taught me a lot, in two different ways. Firstly, it changed my idea of what “poetry” could be. Citizen isn’t just page after page of rhyming couplets, or haikus, or even a verse novel. It’s a multi-media experience. It incorporates photography, film, news media, prose – like a delicious soup made from everything you can find in your fridge, left to simmer for hours. On another level altogether, it taught me a lot about race, privilege, and visibility, particularly in terms of micro-aggressions (yes, a buzzword, but one made tangible through Rankine’s art).
Of course, the onus should never be upon people of colour to “teach” white people about race and privilege, but it behooves us to read, learn, and understand from their work. Citizen is one of the best-selling books of poetry of my generation, and I’m sure (I’m yet to see any evidence for it, but I struggle to believe it wouldn’t be the case) that sales have re-surged in light of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests earlier this month. This book is a testament of lived experience, and it has a lot to teach everyone, of all races and creeds.
Bonus recommendation(s): If you’re looking for more local (Australian) collections that deal with race and justice, I cannot recommend highly enough Blakwork by Alison Whittaker, and Throat by Ellen Van Neerven.
The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard
When I picked up The Mosquito, I was really only looking for the answer to one particular question: why do mosquitoes exist? It’s something I’ve wondered for a while, but I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory answer. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not an essential food source for any other animal, they’re not crucial for pollination of fruits, they really serve no purpose at all other than spreading disease and annoying the shit out of us. But I digress!
My point is that The Mosquito taught me so much more than I could have imagined. It wasn’t so much a history of the creature itself, but a detailed examination of the ways in which it has altered the course of human history. Wars have been won and lost based on vulnerability to the mosquito’s attack. It’s literally “my kingdom for the mosquito”, all the way through. I learnt more about the Romans, more about Napoleon, and even more about conflicts of the 20th century through The Mosquito than I have any other book. And that’s not to mention the biology, the evolutionary theory, the epidemiology…
Going Dark by Julia Ebner
“Extremism” is a word used so often that it has almost come to lose its meaning. We talk about “extremists” being “radicalised online”, but what does that actually mean? Julia Ebner works at a “counter-extremism” think tank, so it seems that she’s pretty well positioned to tell us. What’s more, she actually spent years going undercover in the world of these “online extremists” – in her free time! – and Going Dark is an account of what she learned.
I’d imagine most people pick up a book like this thinking “I could never be radicalised online”. Maybe, if you’re a particularly curious individual, you idly wonder whether you could without giving it any serious thought. The fact is, it’s easier than you realise for your thoughts to be molded and directed by dark corners of the internet. Ebner shows, in terrifying detail, the ways that human vulnerabilities and emotional sore-spots can be exploited and capitalised upon by extreme ideologies.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
The Library Book should really come with a warning: “you’re going to annoy the shit out of your family, friends, and colleagues with fun facts for the next few weeks”. It’s often shelved in the true crime section, which I suppose is where it belongs, as it is the result of Susan Orlean’s investigation into the Los Angeles Central Library fire of 1986. Still, within that story, Orlean manages to relate a history of libraries and books, of city planning and management, of arson and police investigation, of community support services and social justice…
I made the mistake of reading this one on a road trip, so not only did I learn a lot, but everyone in the car was forced to learn a lot along with me. Did you know that the Los Angeles Central Library fire was so hot that it caused book covers to pop like popcorn? Did you know that food manufacturers volunteered freezer space to prevent wet books from molding? Did you know that more books were damaged by efforts to put out the fire than by the fire itself? You’ll read The Library Book and learn something new, or I’ll eat my copy, cover and all. Read my full review of The Library Book here.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
There’s a lot to be said for the power of a provocative title. I still remember the time, back in 2017, when Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race was suddenly saturating my Twitter feed. Folks were upset, folks were confused, folks were enthusiastic, folks were relieved – and, in the past three years, the opinions continue to flow forth. This is the book that Marlon James said was “begging to be written”, one that explores the intersection of race, gender, and class in Britain (though its message is universally resonant).
The main reason to read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is to learn about the undue burden that minorities (BAME, to use the British parlance) carry in “teaching” others about racial justice, and the structural inequalities that prop up white privilege. Even though it might seem, at first, to be written with a specific audience in mind, I think this is one of the books that will teach you something new regardless of your background or circumstances. Read my full review of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race here.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
In our anthropocentric (human-centred) minds, sometimes we forget that we are animals, subject to the same forces of nature as every other creature on this planet. Sapiens uses fields of evolutionary science – anthropology, biology, psychology – to explain how humans came to dominate our environment, and what the past can teach us about the possibilities for our collective future. Harari explains all the ways we are unique, as a species, and all the ways in which we’re really not all that different.
This book is based on a series of lectures given by Harari at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and it was first published in English in 2014 (“translated by the author with the help of John Purcell and Haim Watzman”, #NameTheTranslator!). So, while some of its observations might feel a little dated, it’s still got a lot to teach us about our species (plus, there’s a follow up – Homo Deus – published in 2017). And don’t worry, despite its origins, it’s not particularly academic or dense – it was definitely written for a wide audience, using language that we can all understand.
Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Freakonomics has become one of the contemporary classics of popular non-fiction, and with good reason. Levitt and Dubner manage to meld the seemingly-dry and dull field of economics with the engaging familiar territory of pop culture, to help us better understand why and how we make the decisions we do – and, by extension, why and how the world works. Levitt is a renowned economist by trade, but he was never afraid to step outside the traditions and conventions of the field and look at topics that his colleagues wouldn’t consider worthy of attention. That’s what makes this such a fascinating read, guaranteed to teach you something new (even if you normally switch off the news when an economist comes on).
Since Freakonomics was first published in 2005, it has been reprinted, revised, republished, had a follow-up (SuperFreakonomics), continued in blog form, transformed into a bi-weekly radio/podcast program, and even been adapted to documentary film. Levitt and Dubner formed their own consultancy firm off the back of the book’s success, with Nobel laureates among the founding partners. Not bad for a book based on statistical analysis, eh?
Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson
Imagine if I told you that 176 million people worldwide were affected by one insidious disease, one for which we cannot definitively determine a cause, and one for which the “cures” on offer are, at best, guesswork. Then, imagine that I told you that between 30-60% of the people who could develop this disease couldn’t correctly identify the parts of their anatomy where it might originate. You’d be floored, right? I know I was when I read Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson, a book about the ways the medical system has under-served women and AFAB people for far too long.
It’s a personal subject for Jackson: in 2001, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, and then, in 2015, adenomyosis. She has spent years researching these conditions, and the broader medical system in which they are studied and treated. From Plato’s wandering womb to the present day, she unpicks the complex social history that has got us to this point. Pain And Prejudice gives voice to hundreds of years of silent suffering.
Well, that should be enough book-learnin’ to keep us going for a while, don’t you think? No? Drop your recommendations for books that will teach us all something new in the comments!