Welcome back to the bookish version of Six Degrees of Separation. Here’s how it works: Start with the book suggested by Kate over at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and see where you end up by linking it to six other titles. It’s easy and it’s fun, and no two chains are the same!
I’m going to be honest – I don’t know the true criteria for what makes a nonfiction book a modern classic, but in this month’s post, I’m going to talk about books that I think could qualify as nonfiction modern classics.
This month’s starting point is with a nonfiction modern classic, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. I have never heard of this book, but I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that Truss presents – proper grammar and punctuation are important! When I taught remedial English at my local junior college, I was appauled at the simple mistakes many incoming freshman were making. When I asked them about commas, semicolons, and other grammatical questions, they were genuinely perplexed. While I love technoogy as much as the next person, I do believe it is also creating an unnecessary monster for our children to navigate around as they learn proper English grammar and punctuation.
First Degree: The first book I think of when I hear ‘nonficiton modern classic’ is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. After reading this book, I was shook to the core. On the one hand, the HeLa cells have changed modern medicine so profoundly that one can’t help but be in awe of how awesome science can be (HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions). But on the other hand, these cells (that are still alive today, sixty years after being harvested from Henrietta Lacks’ body) were taken without consent from Lacks or her family. They received no financial benefit whatsoever. Is that because she was a poor Black woman? Is it because the doctors didn’t really know what they had discovered with her cells? This book raises all kinds of fascinating questions that would be fun to debate with your book club!
Second Degree: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson was the most important book I read in 2020. In a year when society was more unsettled racially than we have been in many decades, this book provided the perfect backdrop for me to have a total paradigm shift. I now see racial injustice, systemic racism, and the work ahead of us differently. This book took it from a general concept and made it personal. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect – from watching the last horrifying 8:46 seconds of George Floyd’s life on tv to the riots all over the country on television – but it hit me in my heart and I am grateful.
Third Degree: Another book that will no doubt qualify as a nonfiction modern classic someday is Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Very much along the same lines as Caste (see above), this one just dives much deeper and more scholarly into the issues of America’s racial past. While this book is incredibly dense and almost textbook-like, it’s also full of history information and context. I had to break this up into more manageable chunks because I didn’t want an opportunity to learn to pass me by; I’m glad I did!
Fourth Degree: Furthering the narrative of America’s racist past, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann is a well-researched piece of our history that chronicles the murderous scheme to pillage millions of dollars from the Osage Indians of Oklahoma. It also loosely describes the beginnings of the FBI. While many of our history classes in school briefly glaze over The Trail of Tears, this is a piece of history I’ve never heard anything about! I was grateful to stumble upon yet another piece of the past that helped me see the underlyings of systemic racism in America.
Fifth Degree: With the exception of the American Indians who occupied this land long before the rest of us, America was built on immigrants from all over the world. The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio gives the reader an in-depth look into what is going on behind the headline news. Villavicencio travels to specific parts of the United States, and I really appreciated getting an more in-depth and humanitarian look into the immigration crisis.
Sixth Degree: Totally switching gears now, the last book I think will one day be a nonficiton modern classic is Columbine by Dave Cullen. Not only was Columbine the first school mass shooting, Columbine was the first in-depth look into the minds of teenagers who struggled with mental health, popularity, and other teenage pressures that led to the deadliest school shooting of its time. A great follow-up to this book is A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the infamous Columbine shooters.
Are there any books I missed that you’d definitely add to this list? Let me know in the comments!
Next month (August 7, 2021), we’ll start with a bestselling work of autobiographical fiction, Postcards From the Edge by Carrie Fisher.