I have always hesitated when it comes to reading nonfiction. I think I read it in a more academic mode, more focused on carefully learning information and remembering it all. When I read fiction, my brain makes connections more easily, and sometimes I rush forward to hear more of the story. More feeling, less thinking.
Nevertheless, I am determined to become a person who reads nonfiction for two reasons: First, I love learning about the world. Uncovering new knowledge in a deep way isn’t that easy to achieve outside of school, but nonfiction can teach me a lot. Second, I currently teach AP Language, and my students need to read great nonfiction to understand argument, rhetoric, and style. Therefore, I need to read great nonficton, too.
They begin with summer reading– they choose a pair of books from a list (each pair relates to a different branch of science). I then use Writing to Learn by William Zinsser (which, by the way, is great) to help them analyze some basic tenets of clear, informative writing.
Right now, I’m reading from that same list. My current book is Phantoms in the Brain, by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee. It’s truly fascinating! Ramachandran is a noted neurologist and explores issues such as phantom limbs, one-sided neglect, incomplete blindness, and all the strange sensory things that happen to our brains. He engages readers by showing us specific case studies of patients he has known, and interspersing these with more generalized explanations of how our brains work on an ordinary day.
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What I like about this book:
1. It strikes the right balance between being scientifically correct and being accessible for any reader. In the prologue, Ramachandran explains that he will reserve the footnotes for elaboration and clarification on the technical stuff, so those in the field can follow up, but a lay reader like me can just universally skip them!
2. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I’m not a big believer in psychology. Maybe I’ve had too many people try to use the social privilege of “science” to tell me “well your REAL problem is….” when there are many diverse ways of understanding our own inner minds and even more ways of helping each other deal with life’s disturbances. Believing that psychology has all the answers and can cure all ills, to me, just another form of religious belief, but one that is more socially acceptable because it is SCIENCE.
Anyway, rant aside: this book is not about having all the answers. Since it’s based in neurology and not psych, it’s really about “hmm, that’s odd, I wonder why that happened,” and I can definitely get behind an observation-based exploration of the weirdness of how our brain works.
3. The writing is just fantastically smooth, precise, and engaging. There’s a generosity to bringing readers into a world in which you are an expert with humor, intriguing examples, and most of all a kind regard for the patients he treats. Ramachandran never thinks of anyone as less than a whole person.
I’m also on the hunt for personal essays and creative nonfiction pieces to read with students throughout the year. First prize at the moment goes to Jesamyn Ward’s essay, My True South: Why I Decided to Return Home. Is everything this woman writes heart-wrenchingly beautiful and complex? I think I’m ready to read more of her fiction soon.