Sunday, August 22, 2010

First Officer's Log No 12: "Where's Your Nonfiction Section?": How This Question Leads to Awesome Things

"Excuse me, where is the nonfiction section?" It's a question that I hear pretty often, especially now that school's back in session. Yes, fellow bibliophiles, the University has begun classes and it is madness all around. The good news, the city is having fun with the students returning. Today, there's a Taste of Iowa City thing going on, where the local restaurants put out tables with samples of their cuisine and the locals and the newcomers get to discover the joy of food in this town. Fun things happen when Iowa City does festivals and weekend events; people get interested in what's going on, and some of them end up in the bookshop, and ask for books related to the event. It's a win-win.

"Non fiction" is a term that I find myself having something of a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, I love it, because it encompasses all those subjects near and dear to my heart, and the real events and people of the past and present who influence and effect the world. On the other hand, some people tend to stay away from non fiction, I think, because it features writers who are, at best, informed about their subject that doesn't interest the general public, and, at worst, writers who have interesting material but are terribly boring writers. However, most non fiction writers that I've encountered are good writers who want to share their expertise with the world, and they do so in good natured, well written fashions. I've said before how half the fun of my job is watching who goes for what subject when they come in the door.

So, when gastrologues, or books about food that are not cookbooks, come across the desk, it's interesting to see who buys what. With all the interest in organic produce, haute cuisine, and the popularity of chefs in our society, we see a lot of these kinds of books come through. Young men and women and the hip foodie people amongst us, like reading the abrasive, yet amusing, Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential), while more upscale yet relaxed tastes prefer the entertaining, optimistic outlook of Jeffrey Steingarten (The Man Who Ate Everything). Other people look for Julia Child's memoir (My Life In France), or Ruth Reichl's food criticism books (I recommend Garlic and Sapphires).

Regardless of the time of year, the interest in cultural studies, current events, and political science is never out of style. The same can be said of history. With the present political climate, there's a lot of interest in race relations and religious studies, as well as a boost in military history interest. Since we expanded the section, we've gained a few more shelves of American Civil War studies, and some more World War II.

I realized earlier this year that my knowledge of World War I was lacking, so I picked up John Keegan's The First World War; the book details the lives of soldiers, the politics and events of the time, and distills the history down to a compact yet informative size. More personal conflicts in military time are also gaining attention, including Michael Herr's account of Vietnam, Dispatches, and Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah, about the Iranian hostage crisis. Sometimes, in reading about the military history of our country and others, it's easy to lapse into a somewhat depressed thought of "How did we come to this? And why?" In that case, I'd strongly recommend War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges.

Ancient history is riddled with great books, from the original historians and philosophers. From Herodotus' Histories to Thucydides' The Peloponnesian Wars to Julius Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul, there are stories, legends and cultural insights to be had. Who says history is boring? Send them into the shop. We'll change their minds.

It's an interesting world, and non fiction writing helps us explore it. I love non fiction, especially history and social studies, because I truly do think that we can understand our contemporary state of affairs and life better if we learn how it used to be. I'm not saying that we should return to those old ways of being - believe me, I like the amenities of our present life -but I think a bit of understanding and genuine interest can go a long way.

So next time you come in, go ahead and ask one of us "Where's the non fiction section?". If you want cultural studies or general non fiction interest, flag me down. Nialle is a font of knowledge on just about anything, and she's got (several) books worth of Irish history in her head. We'll be happy to introduce you to the good stuff.

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

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