My Favorite Books (Non-Fiction)

Several people ask me from time to time to recommend a book. It's both an honor as well as challenging, since tastes differ, and there are so many books from which to choose. So let me backtrack a bit before getting to "the list."

One of the most valuable aspects of my retirement has been the opportunity to join a small, eclectic, and invigorating men's book club. For one thing it's not easy to find book clubs, and if and when one can locate one, getting invited as a member is another matter. For me, it was a combination of innate interest in reading coupled with simple good fortune, as a friend in our rural neighborhood has been a long-time member in a small but quite active book club in Austin. This club has an interesting history: founded in mid-1999 by a former British army officer, an older man who was a veteran of the British colonial empire struggles, who stopped in Austin while circumambulating the world in retirement. He met and married a local lady, and settled down in a genteel part of town.

By the time I joined, the founder had passed away, but the structure was firmly established and the membership settled at a number in the low teens. After years of no change, relocations and resignations in 2003-4 created an opening. Several members nominated candidates, and three of us now remain as "the new guys" eight years later. There are 13 of us now, all very active readers (and wine drinkers, and conversationalists).

The club borders on the lunatic fringe in terms of reading, with one fiction and one non-fiction book selected by the man hosting the monthly meeting. August is an off-month, both to escape the brutal heat of Texas summers and to catch up on other books that might be candidates for future selection. But it's not mandatory to read both books, and only half or so of the members manage to read both selections, given demands of the job or other pressing matters. For some reason, perhaps my retirement or an obsessive-compulsive need to follow instructions—or merely the joy to expand my horizons and expose myself to literature following a life in high tech and the pressures of that career—I've read both selections every month since joining.

One of the members maintains a spread sheet listing the books by date, author, and title, along with the host of the meeting, and I find this to be extremely helpful, since (to be candid) I can't remember the selections, and at times can not even remember reading the book at all several years later. I do save the books, and am fortunate to have a good-sized library here at home. So there is physical evidence in the form of the volumes themselves, along with my "Ex Libris" bookmarks with my name and the month or acquisition.

So, back to the question at hand, my favorites. A warning, there will be more fiction than non-fiction, since my I find the novels more interesting and engaging. Perhaps that's normal after a lifetime of reading history and business reports. Here goes the non-fiction list. Look for the fiction list to follow in a few days.


Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson (Dramatic adventure story about mountain climbing. It plumbs the very depths of human ethics and morality.)

American Spinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph Ellis

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson (Note, this book influenced my wife and me to do a segment hike on the Appalachian Trail.)

Persepolis, by Marjani Satrapi (This is a graphic book about a young girl growing up in Iran, illustrated in "comic book" style by the author.)

The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, by Spencer Wells (Where did we come from? This book tracks the trail by means of DNA.)

The Great Influenza, by John Barry (The story of the horrible influenza epidemic of the early 1900's.)

The Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam, Jr. (This book was the prime influence on my own novel.)

Polio, by David Oshinsky (The incredible story of the battle between Salk and Sabin for rights to claim credit for the cure of polio.)

Lords of Finance, by Liaquat Ahamed (Story of the ministers of finance of the great powers before, during, and following World War I.)

Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne (Should be required reading for all U.S. school kids. The story of rise and fall of the Comanches, who dominated the American plains for hundreds of years.)

Life, by Keith Richards (Very readable book, great insight into what makes a super band really click.)

This Time It's Different, by Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff (I'll write a complete blog next week on this. It's a seminal book of every financial crisis in the world for the past 800 years, and should be mandatory reading for every policy maker.)



3 Responses

  1. Peggy
    I have mentioned before that Jim and I first became acquainted by talking on "CW", Morse code on the ham radio as we are both amateur radio operators. Over a period of time, we had some really nice conversations, but I never knew that we were both born in the mountain ranges of West Virginia and Southwest Virginia not that far apart. Later we met in person at gatherings of our "Ham Club", not really getting acquainted until we had breakfast across the table in Lafayette, La. We both live in Texas, but did not know he was born in West Virginia just across the border from where I was born in Southwest Virginia. Like Jim, I love to read, and read both fiction, and non-fiction, but particularly love biographies. I love realistic things that happen, but if they aren't exactly realistic, (the complete truth, as is fiction) as long as I can feel the truth, the book shows me alot. I could read every book suggested in Jim's list, and have read a number of them. Now waiting for the list of fiction. I may never get anything else done but read. Thanks Jim for churning up my reading fun, and for the information about the book club. "Reunion" is exactly perfect for me.
  2. Ann jones
    Jim, As I read your book, "The Rocket Boys" came to mind. It was one of my favorites, also. I'm going to check out or buy "Empire of the Summer Moon." There is so much history about the Indians that roamed our land. After Charlie's dad passed on I discovered many books on his shelves about the American Indians. We have a special glass case filled with arrow heads that Mom Jones sifted for along the creek bank.
  3. It's a shame you don't have a donate button! I'd most certainly donate to this brilliant blog! I guess for now i'll settle for book-marking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to brand new updates and will share this site with my Facebook group. Talk soon!

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