At the start of 2019 I decided that this would be the year I read more non-fiction. The reason for this is simple: I read way more fiction than non-fiction and I wanted to switch it up.
I had several books in mind, many of which I’d been meaning to read for some time, so, in order to make it a little more interesting I decided to challenge myself to read 19 works of non-fiction in 2019.
As we’re now just two weeks away from 2020, and having surpassed my goal by reading 21 non-fiction books, I think I’m in a position to talk about my top 5 non-fiction reads of the year, in order of reading not preference because I’m far too indecisive for that!
1. Assata: An Autobiography
“It’s got to be one of the most basic principles of living: always decide who your enemies are for yourself, and never let your enemies choose your enemies for you.”
In 2013, Assata Shakur, founding member of the Black Liberation Army, became the first woman to make the FBIs most wanted terrorist list. Whilst this may conjure images of a dangerous woman, to read this book is to hear from a powerful, sensitive, poetic force and should cause you to question the system that not only placed her name on that list, but allowed her conviction(s) in the first place.
Assata escaped from prison in 1974, whilst serving a life sentence for murder and her autobiography was written from Cuba, where she was granted political asylum.
Of all the women I encountered on various pages this year, Assata Shakur’s spirit stands out as the most formidable in the face of oppression.
2. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
“The rich have always used racism to maintain power. To hate someone, to discriminate against them, and to attack them because of racial characteristics is one of the most primitive, reactionary, ignorant ways of thinking that exists.”
I couldn’t possibly challenge myself to read more non-fiction and not include this absolute masterpiece. Malcolm X was, of course, a a key figure in the fight for the equality and freedoms denied back men and women in America and his autobiography was completed just before his murder in 1965.
Having followed his life and the many trials he experienced, including a childhood in various foster homes, a descent into drug addiction and the years spent in prison for robbery, by the time I read of his embracing Islam and his pilgrimage to Mecca so close to his death, it was impossible not to shed tears.
If you haven’t got around to reading this book yet I’d highly encourage you do so. I’m pretty sure it’s the only 500+ page book I’ve ever read that I didn’t want to end.
3. All About Love by bell hooks
“When I would talk about my yearning for a loving partner, people told me over and over that I did not need anyone else […] While it is definitely true that inner contentedness and a sense of fulfillment can be there whether or not we commune in love with others, it is equally meaningful to give voice to that longing for communion. Life without communion in love with others would be less fulfilling no matter the extent of one’s self-love”.
bell hooks proposes that we are a world no longer open to love and in All About Love she calls for a return to love as a means of restoration.
This is a book that considers not just romantic love but parental love, love between friends, love as a place from which to approach the activities of every day life and love as a choice. Where love is most often defined as a noun, bell hooks suggests that “we would all love better if we used it as a verb”.
Whilst I wouldn’t say I agreed with every sentiment expressed in this book, I don’t feel that I needed to in order to appreciate its value. All About Love is a book that calls the reader to evaluate their relationship with love and there were ideas expressed within it that found me at just the right time.
4. I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi
“This thing wants to eat you. Don’t let it. It’s exhausting. Rest if you need to. It is a liar. Believe only that you are a necessary and an important part of this world”.
In this memoir-in-essays Bassey Ikpi explores her lived experience as a black woman, a Nigerian-American immigrant, a slam poet, a writer, a daughter, sister and mother with diagnoses of bipolar II and anxiety.
To read this book is to spend however long it takes you to read close to 300 pages in Bassey Ikpi’s mind, which proved to be an exhausting, insightful and heartbreaking reading experience but one that offered so much insight into a reality that is so often hidden. Finishing this book was like coming up for air but Ikpi’s writing is pure poetry and I’ve taken every available opportunity to recommend it since.
5. Don’t Touch Many Hair by Emma Dabiri
“Why is it that thew only way black women can look ‘professional’ is contingent on producing a poor facsimile of white women’s hair? What more poignant example is there of the necessary assimilation required in conforming to a culture not designed for certain bodies, not designed for my body to fit into easily?”
On the topic of black hair, Emma Dabiri, an Irish-Nigerian television presenter and teaching fellow at SOAS University of London, has written something truly special.
Taking readers on a journey exploring the history of black hair from pre-colonial Africa to today’s Natural Hair Movement, Dabiri considers black hairstyles, their meanings, cultural origins and significance and addresses the continued discrimination that exists with regards to black hair, particularly when worn in its natural state.
Don’t Touch My Hair is an excellent combination of in-depth research and personal experience presented in a way that is approachable, digestible and often quite amusing.
So, there you have it, the five non-fiction books that captured my heart and my mind this year. Whilst I have no intention of setting any particular non-fiction challenges for next year, there are plenty of other non-fiction books I’m excited to get to.
I will of course be coming back to you with my fiction favourites but that’s going to be much more difficult to narrow down. Wish me luck!