How we learn from non-fiction books: 2018 version

Perhaps more importantly than spending 2018 with novels as an emotional guidepost was the agreement that I would spend more time (in general) reading books.  I spent the year trying to relegate my web surfing to a minimum while trying to focus on words and arguments that come from books. 

2018 was also the year I dropped out of Facebook — one of the best decisions I made in a long time. Like many others who had been on the social network for a decade, spending time on Facebook became a law of diminishing returns. (Along, of course, with the revulsion of the data scandals.) One of my biggest complaints was Facebook is a poor RSS feed—It couldn’t deliver content effortlessly from my favorite media outlets. 

Even if FB would be able to distribute my content that way I want to receive it, I felt I entered an information diet getting so much news online. One of the unintended consequences of so much  information and our falling attention span is that many of the arguments come in bite-sized pieces. We live in an era governed by the 800-word Op-ed. Which is fine if you want just a quick wade into a topic. 

But what if you want something deeper, like moving beyond the outlines of a topic? That’s where books come in. Your average non-fiction book is long enough and (hopefully) focused enough to provide a natural barometer on the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s argument.  Books give readers the time to spend weighing assumptions, probing reasoning and evidence and thinking through consequences of these arguments. 

As a reader, I have a list of subjects that I’d like to take a deeper dive. If you have the wherewithal to write 250 pages on a subject I am interested in, I should have the fortitude to read it. Then I can see how your book meshes with what else I know about the subject. 

During the past year, I mostly focused my reading about problems facing modern capitalism and the major issues of modern universities, but also spent time learning Middle Eastern history (including the UAE). While the books on the modern universities that I read can help me do my job as an academic librarian, 2018 was also the first year in awhile that I used books for professional development, reading about financial planning in libraries, the secrets of bibliometrics and new tools for research support. 

The difference in using books for professional learning is astounding. My learning on the internet is too self directed, too haphazard, and it permits too many bad habits to creep in. It’s far too easy for me to go open 15 browser tabs and disappear down rabbit holes. Talk about diminishing returns. Staying with a few good books on specific subjects gave my learning some breadth, with space and the ability to cover a lot of ground. Most important it allowed me to review what I’ve read, ask better questions of the texts and connect the dots from seemingly different points trains of thought.

Here is a list of non-fiction books that made a mark on me:

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein — The perfect type of reporting. Taking big picture issues (the fall of US manufacturing, political economy in the rust belt) and showing how they impact people. It shows that 30,000 feet reporting can be a lot different (and much more complicated) when you look at the issues from the ground. 

Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World by Adam Tooze — This would be the 30,000 feet. Its breadth is immense. The amount of research and learning is also immense. It is certainly not a flawless argument, but with this much ambition and this many topics and countries to cover, what could be? It gives any reader a lot to work through. It provides you context of the previous 10, 20, 40 years, all coming to a head. 

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald — On the surface, this is a narrative of birds, science, healing, death and rebirth. All these pieces somehow fit together into a modern classic. I savored every word of this book. I even picked up a few other books while reading it because I didn’t want this to end. Who knew that raising a hawk in England could be so interesting? 

Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr — What if the band I most patterned my young life after were a group of sociopaths? Well, the story was better than I ever thought. Score one for ‘80s nostalgia.