THE TRUTH NEVER GOT IN THE WAY OF A GOOD STORY:
Apparently, that little book about which everybody's been talking sold almost 9 million copies in its first 24 hours in the U.S.
and the U.K.
It seems likely that if people were so hot and bothered to get the book right away, they were also apt to start reading it immediately (ergo
, the comments thread a few posts down). My completely unconfirmable guess is that July 16, 2005 should go down in history as the day on which people read the greatest number of printed pages in the English language. What else could be close? July 17, 2005? December 8, 1941?
If you buy that hypothesis -- and maybe even if you don't -- it also stands to reason that Saturday was the day with the greatest ratio of fiction to non-fiction pages consumed (and, for that matter, the greatest ratio of juvenile to adult fiction pages). Our old friend non-fiction can be forgiven, then, for feeling a little neglected. As a little pick-me-up for Ol' Facty, then, I present, in no particular order, a list of my all-time favorite non-fiction reads: The Coming Plague
, Laurie Garrett. Garrett's thesis is that the four greatest public health disasters of the 20th Century are war (check), poverty (ho hum), rural-to-urban migration (snooze), and the opening of the Kinshasa Highway (surprise!). To prove it, she gives us the epidemiology -- and the creepy mechanics -- of AIDS, ebola (my favorite disease, if you must know), hantavirus, drug-resistant TB, and a host of other new or improved diseases. Garrett won a Pulitzer for this book, convinced just about everybody who read it, and got completely ignored by everybody in the world who could actually prevent you from catching a disease that might make you liquify from the inside and bleed out of all of your orifices. If you're looking for something literally and figuratively lighter from the same shelf, try The Medical Detectives
, a collection of Berton Roueche's essays (in the New Yorker and elsewhere) answering, Encyclopedia Brown-style, burning questions like: Why is this dude orange?
and How did a general contractor in the suburban U.S. catch anthrax?
I was reading this on a plane when the guy next to me asked whether I was an epidemiology student. No, I said, just reading. He said he was an epidemiologist, and he and all of his friends read "The Medical Detectives" when they were studying. I did not speak to him for the rest of the flight because he was my hero
. The Grove Book of Hollywood
, Christopher Silvester, ed. Is it cheating to include an anthology here? Like putting a greatest-hits CD on your top-10 list? This compulsively-readable book breaks off 5- and 10-page (and a few longer) chunks of first-person Hollywood history and gossip, from the pioneers hiding from Edison's agents through the source material for Budd Schulberg's more-true-than-you-know What Makes Sammy Run?
to the making of the modern blockbusters. Okay, it's a little light from 1980 on, but you can always just read Hit and Run
(a fun, if untrustworthy, hatchet job) and Hollywood Animal
(haven't read it yet -- it's on my list) if you need to know that people in the '80s and '90s were as insane as in the '60s and '70s. The Kid Stays in the Picture
, Robert Evans. On a similar note, reading this book felt like the time I was 16 years old and discovered Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
without proper warning about what I was getting into. Is this guy completely nuts? Well, duh. And everybody around him, too. The passages about the making of the Godfather and the Cotton Club (both excerpted at length in the Grove Book) are hilarious portraits of an entire world populated by completely insane people. A concern: Is any of this true? Among the Lowest of the Dead
, David von Drehle. von Drehle tells the story of several Florida death row inmates. I was on the fence about capital punishment until I read this book. It has an anti-death penalty bias, but there is a lot more journalism and a lot less advocacy in this book than in the Prejean
and the Bedeau and Radelet
books. Because he is a better writer, von Drehle also tells a more harrowing tale. A Winner's Guide to Casino Gambling
, Edwin Silberstang. I bought an early edition of this book used for 99 cents and read it through twice years before I ever stepped into a casino -- during the early years of the failed "family-friendly" Vegas experiment and almost a decade before the Swingers-fueled boom. Theoretically this book is reference, not the kind of thing that I would ordinarily recommend to somebody (if reference counted, the Orange Bible would make this list). What saves it are the chatty war stories that Silberstang sprinkles through the book. In the guise of instruction, Silberstang, an ex-card mechanic, tells preposterous stories about bad beats, fake mustaches, and riches won and lost. There are probably hundreds of better books about Las Vegas and gambling, but this one will always be dear to me. The Antitrust Paradox
, Robert Bork. The complete list of things I have in common with Robert Bork consists of: (1) school affiliations; (2) number of X and Y chromasomes; and (3) the stuff between the first and last pages of this book. Call me crazy, but it's lucidly written, convincing, and probably one of the two or three most influential law books of the postwar period. Plus, it has a first-rate set of acknowledgements.
I know, that's not five. Sue me. What just missed the list? Well, Naked
, The Measure of a Mountain
(my cousin's memoir of his obsession with Mt. Rainier), Cities on a Hill
(Frances Fitzgerald's study of what communities are and how they are created, in which Fitzgerald studies a fundamentalist wealthy American church community, a retirement city, Rajneeshpuram, and the Castro, the latter two -- improbably -- as they implode; this book is kind of a more human counterpart to Jane Jacobs's Death and Life of Great American Cities
). My dad's books, which, uh, I'm going to read them, I promise. Biographies of Robert Moses, John D. Rockefeller, Archibald Cox, Abe Fortas. The Constitution in the Supreme Court. What am I missing?