21 Books for 2021 Part 2: “Old” Nonfiction

breaking the notions of “academic” and “boring” texts and reading them for fun

Read other parts here:

In Part 1, I talked about my quarantine haul. I have never, ever bought as many books within a year the way I have since the lockdown started in March 2020. Writing that post was a wake-up call, because my other books feel unloved and unnoticed as I tried to catch up with the latest releases.

The older books in my library have much more interesting backgrounds and come from a wider variety of sources. Each acquisition is a story in itself–a marker of where I am in life in that moment and a sliver of a reality without a pandemic. Writing this post includes resurrecting memories of walking from one end of España Blvd. to another and filling a pushcart to the brim with books at 2AM. It also makes me wonder about the privilege of building a personal library and how these fun experiences cannot disregard others’ inaccessibility to the same resources. I’ll likely do a separate post on that after Part 3 once I get my thoughts together.

The books featured here in Part 2 are “old” nonfiction titles acquired pre-pandemic. They have been slowly filling a significant portion of my bookshelf, but sadly, I haven’t gotten around to enjoying them. Though I tend to read a nonfiction book one chapter at a time over the course of weeks or months, here’s to hoping that I finish all these books this year!

1. The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Book design by Brent Wilcox; cover and synopsis from Goodreads

For eighteen years, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have been part of a team revolutionizing the study of politics by turning conventional wisdom on its head. They start from a single assertion: Leaders do whatever keeps them in power. They don’t care about the “national interest”—or even their subjects—unless they have to. This clever and accessible book shows that the difference between tyrants and democrats is just a convenient fiction. Governments do not differ in kind but only in the number of essential supporters, or backs that need scratching. The size of this group determines almost everything about politics: what leaders can get away with, and the quality of life or misery under them. The picture the authors paint is not pretty. But it just may be the truth, which is a good starting point for anyone seeking to improve human governance.

This book does not actually belong to me. It was Ezra’s pick from Big Bad Wolf, and he asked me to kindly adopt it for the meantime due to lack of space. He highly recommends it and says it’s a steal after seeing a copy of the same edition for P800+ at Fully Booked.

It also seems very relevant to our current situation here in the Philippines. Despite living in a democracy, our reality is far closer to a dictatorship. Many thinkpieces have been written about Duterte’s rise to power. With that, we say #OUSTDUTERTE !

2. Raphael Lemkin’s Dossier on the Armenian Genocide by Raphael Lemkin

Raphael Lemkin was one of the greatest and most influential lawyers and human rights activists in the last century. Not only did he coin the word “genocide,” but was also the prime mover for the enactment of the United Nations Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (the “Genocide Convention”), the international law document that in 1948 made genocide an international “crime of crimes”.

Distressed by the cyclical slaughter of Armenians by Turks in 1894, 1909, and 1915, Lemkin searched for legal remedies to punish perpetrators of mass murder and to deter and prevent future genocides.

Lemkin’s dossier on the plight of the Armenians constitutes an important contribution for scholars, human rights activists, and others seeking to know what the originator of the term genocide and the “father” of the Genocide Convention had to say about the Armenian Genocide.

Cover design and book layout by Ari Boyaijan and Image Cube Design

During our short tour in Armenia in 2018, our guide was very outspoken about the pain her people suffered under the Turks and the Soviet Union. So many aspects of their lives are direct consequences of the Armenian Genocide and the Soviet rule. In fact, the word genocide is coined by Lemkin to describe the horrific massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in World War I.

It was such a humbling and raw experience. Diana would point to the silhouette of Mt. Ararat–clearly visible from almost every place we visited–and tell us that it is their holy mountain, but at present, it lies outside their political borders and now belongs to Turkey. Throughout the trip, all we can do is listen and pray with her as she and her people grieve the losses and injustice that are still unresolved to this day. Sadly, we were unable to visit the National Museum and the Genocide Memorial due to lack of time. I bought this book from a bookstore near our accommodations in the hopes to learn more about this part of world history that I don’t know much about.

3. The Reason for God by Timothy Keller

Cover design by Richard L. Hasselberger

Why is there suffering in the world?
How could a loving God send people to Hell?
Why isn’t Christianity more inclusive?
How can there be one true religion?
Why have so many wars been fought in the name of God?

In the New York Times bestselling The Reason for God, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Timothy Keller, addresses the frequent doubts that skeptics, and even ardent believers have about religion. Using literature, philosophy, real-life conversations and potent reasoning, Keller explains how the belief in a Christian God is, in fact, a sound and rational one. To true believers he offers a solid platform on which to stand their ground against the backlash to religion created by the Age of Skepticism. And to skeptics, atheists, and agnostics, he provides a challenging argument for pursuing the reason for God.

It’s a favorite among intellectual circles at church, and even if the urge to fit in has passed, my interest in this book hasn’t. I do have a lot of burning questions about my faith, and though I recognize that the Bible is the sole authority, I need a little help interpreting or putting into context some passages.

I never read it before because the book was beyond my student allowance, and so I was content to simply listen to friends share their insights about what they had read. Surprisingly, I got mine for free. I found this particular copy with other Christian books in a box by the assigned garbage chute of our condominium floor. They were all in good condition and bore one name–some even had dedications from people who most likely gave them as gifts. I dragged the HUGE and full balikbayan box to my unit, and kept running around the hallway like a headless chicken in the hopes of finding its owner. I bumped into him, eventually, and he just shrugged and asked me to take whatever I wanted from the box. He simply said, “I don’t need them anymore.”

I still think about him to this day.

4. Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

In bold and spirited prose featuring his irreverent wit and heartbreaking honesty, McCourt records the trials, triumphs and surprises he faces in public high schools around New York City. His methods anything but conventional, McCourt creates a lasting impact on his students through imaginative assignments (he instructs one class to write “An Excuse Note from Adam or Eve to God”), singalongs (featuring recipe ingredients as lyrics), and field trips (imagine taking twenty-nine rowdy girls to a movie in Times Square!).

McCourt struggles to find his way in the classroom and spends his evenings drinking with writers and dreaming of one day putting his own story to paper. Teacher Man shows McCourt developing his unparalleled ability to tell a great story as, five days a week, five periods per day, he works to gain the attention and respect of unruly, hormonally charged or indifferent adolescents. McCourt’s rocky marriage, his failed attempt to get a Ph.D. at Trinity College, Dublin, and his repeated firings due to his propensity to talk back to his superiors ironically lead him to New York’s most prestigious school, Stuyvesant High School, where he finally finds a place and a voice. “Doggedness,” he says, is “not as glamorous as ambition or talent or intellect or charm, but still the one thing that got me through the days and nights.”

For McCourt, storytelling itself is the source of salvation, and in Teacher Man the journey to redemption — and literary fame — is an exhilarating adventure.

Jacket design by John Fulbrook III; jacket photograph courtesy of Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association Archives

I bought this at Books Please, a second hand bookshop located under the stairs at University Mall along Vito Cruz. The bookshop is still open for online orders through its Facebook page and for pickups at their location.

We would usually escape from our own university town into the Manila U-belt whenever Katipunan and Diliman became too suffocating, and would try out new board game cafes in the area. I remember getting on my hands and knees to dig up some gold treasure from the boxes and crates and laundry baskets that also double as walls for the bookshop. I read the first chapters of this book to pass the time while waiting for Ezra to come from a board exam review class, but I did not expect to be hit hard with memories of my own first days as a teacher–especially since McCourt and I share the same vibe of being more student than authority figure. The unhelpful advice, the scornful stares… too real. I’m looking forward to reread this and finish it, especially in this stage of career confusion and quarter-life crisis.

5. Literasi: Konteksto, Limitasyon, at Posibilidad by Maria Luisa Canieso Doronila, translated by Carolina S. Malay

Cover design: Joanne de Leon; synopsis is from the original English edition as it appears on Goodreads.

English title/original edition:
Landscapes of Literacy: An Ethnographic Study of Functional Literacy in Marginal Philippine Communities.

Examines what it means to be functionally literate, how literacy can be measured and does it invariably promote development in the context of six types of marginal Philippine community, ranging from island fishing people to upland farmers and rice cultivators. The text demonstrates that the concepts of literacy and numeracy cannot be separated from their social and cultural settings and that standard measures of literacy used in industrialized countries are often inappropriate.

A full text of the original English edition can found here.

The concept of literacy as more than just being able to read, write, and speak has changed my life ever since I encountered it. In history, the concept has been leveraged against certain groups of people and kept them out of opportunities and positions of power. You can read more about how the definition and scope of literacy changed over the years in this UNESCO report (you can skip ahead to Chapter 6).

Many studies I’ve read deal with international communities, so it’s exciting to read about our own situation here in the Philippines. I got this at a UP Press discount bin because I thought it would be a great reference for my grad studies in Reading Education. 

I also got this partly because I recognized the author’s name. Doronila is also a renowned educator and author. Her book, Towards Relevant Education, is given to each CA-EMA (Comm Arts – English, Music, and Arts) student teacher as a welcome present by then-department head Teacher Dian Caluag. I found the lesson plans and guide questions really helpful in developing critical thinking skills and discussing issues like systemic oppression.

I also view this book as a challenge to read in academic Filipino! I am pretty fluent in my basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), but my cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) in Filipino sucks. But it won’t improve, if I won’t try, right? 

6. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Synopsis: Anxious about the apostrophe? Confused by the comma? Stumped by the semicolon? Join Lynne Truss on a hilarious tour through the rules of punctuation that is sure to sort the dashes from the hyphens.

We all had the basic rules of punctuation drilled into us at school, but punctuation pedants have good reason to suspect they never sank in. ‘Its Summer!’ screams a sign that sets our teeth on edge. ‘Pansy’s ready’, we learn to our considerable interest (‘Is she?’) as we browse among the bedding plants.

It is not only the rules of punctuation that have come under attack but also a sense of why they matter. In this runaway bestseller, Lynne Truss takes the fight to emoticons and greengrocers’ apostrophes with a war cry of ‘Sticklers unite!’

Design by Geoff Green; cover and synopsis from Goodreads

This is a very familiar title mostly because of our project for EDL 113 (Communicative Grammar for Teachers of English in Basic Education): an annotated bibliography of grammar guides for teachers. This title has always been recommended along with Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande–a cute contrast with the Strunk and White classic The Elements of Style that, in my opinion, takes itself too seriously.

After years of seeing it on Goodreads and other Google Search Results but never in a bookshop or a library, I finally found this on a discount table at NBS Katipunan. It’s four years too late for my project, but buying it feels like closure to one of the most stressful situations of undergrad life.

It’s ironic that I’m including a grammar book here when I can’t even be bothered to correct my comma splices and keep my tenses consistent. Ah well, I am quite tired of living up to double standards set for POCs when other native speakers of English don’t have to observe “proper” or “grammatical” writing 🤷‍♀️

7. Cultural Selection by Gary Taylor

Cover design by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich; cover photograph by Katherine McGlynn

Acclaimed literary scholar Gary Taylor creates a new paradigm for understanding cultural history. He argues that culture is not what was done, but what is remembered and that the social competition among different memories is as dynamic as the biological struggle for survival. Taylor builds his argument on a broad base of cultural achievements, from Michelangelo to Frankenstein, from Shakespeare to Casablanca, from Freud to Invisible Man. He spans the continents to draw upon Japanese literature, Native American history, ancient Greek philosophy, and modern American architecture.

One of the hallmarks of our (mine and Ezra’s) relationship is we walk a LOT on our dates or we ride on all kinds of public transportation. Sometimes we have a destination in mind; half the time, we don’t. Along the way, we discover interesting sights, hole-in-the-wall gems, and so many musings and reflections about life in the city.

On one of those dates, I found this book for 10 pesos at a random sale along España! In addition, I also got a 1960 edition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Other Writings. Ezra, I miss you and I miss these dates 🥺 I also miss buying books with you and enabling each other whenever we’re torn about a book asking for a home 🥺

I started this book a few years ago, but sadly I didn’t yet have the drive to finish a non-narrative nonfiction book outside my list of required readings for class. Some of the ideas mentioned here are related to Pierre Nora’s essay Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire, and I’m excited to revisit these concepts especially in relation to pop culture, gatekeeping, and problems in the publishing industry.

Life is stranger than fiction

While looking at my shelf and writing this post, it dawns on me that I pick nonfiction titles based on whatever I find confusing, mysterious, or heartbreaking at the moment: my career, Armenian genocide, erasure of memories and cultures, and so much more. Looking back, it’s also amazing that I happen upon these titles at the time I needed them, and even if I hadn’t finished the books themselves, just holding them was so comforting.

Although fiction is also helpful in recognizing patterns, practicing responses, and putting things in perspective, it may not be able to account for all the factors present in real-life scenarios. Sometimes the good, the evil, and the downright strange come in forms that we cannot think of even with our wildest imaginations. 2020 and by extension 2021 is a whole nonfiction genre that no one could ever cook up on their own. Who wouldn’t want to read about that, right??? I think that’s the thought that can kick me out of the “nonfiction is boring and should be left in school” mindset.

Also, I miss going out without the fear of catching COVID-19. Huhu. In the meantime, here’s to finishing more nonfiction reads this year!

Let’s discuss:

  • Do you like reading nonfiction? What topics do you like to read about?
  • Personally, I find it hard to finish a nonfic because I can’t binge it like I do with fiction. I’ve taken to keeping one by my bedside and reading one chapter or two a day. Do you share the same problem? What tips do you have for finishing nonfiction books?

5 thoughts on “21 Books for 2021 Part 2: “Old” Nonfiction”

  1. I’m so bad at reading nonfic, gosh, huhu. Your practice of reading a chapter a day sounds efficient, though; I might just give that a try. I’m always buying Philippine history books for work — mostly stuff on cultural and social history — but I never really read more than two chapters from each.

    I was in a relationship a couple years back with someone who prided himself on only reading nonfic. He scoffed at people in our book club (that’s where we met), majority of whom gravitated towards SFF. It was incredibly difficult to convince the guy that fiction captured the breadth of human experience just as well as nonfic did, and it goes without saying that relationship did not last for very long. :p


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