Eleven from 2011, Non-Fiction Edition

I recently posted my eleven favorite fiction books from 2011; here are their non-fiction counterparts.

(You’ll notice I’m reading a lot more books that are adjacent to, though not directly in service of, my research. I’m at the coding-and-data stage of my dissertation, so I end up with all my reading energy channeled into my free time!)

1. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau [buy]
Lareau describes two approaches to child-rearing: an ethos of “natural development” among the working and middle classes, and one of “concerted cultivation” among upper-middle-class parents. I can’t stop seeing these two rhetorics in tension with each other in educational research, especially around technology. This book changed my life more than anything else I’ve read this year. Bonus fun: new tools to analyze one’s own childhood experiences!

2. Wifework, Susan Maushart [buy]
Why do husbands benefit so much more from marriage than wives? Maushart argues that wifework – the constellation of practical, emotional, and sexual services women provide to their spouses – is draining to provide and revitalizing to receive. Now that women have control of their reproductive lives and can support themselves financially, men need to learn to be better wives. Often depressing, always persuasive, wonderfully written, and thoroughly recommended.

3. Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Judith Martin [buy]
Some of you may be wondering why I’ve suddenly started sending charmingly penned thank-you notes and hosting dinner parties. The secret? I’m hoping to impress Judith Martin with my graciousness and charm. Since that’s unlikely, I’ll settle for  living up to the smart, sane recommendations in her etiquette book. She’s witty enough that I read the whole thing cover to cover – all nine hundred plus pages of it.

4. Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson [buy]
Four essays, linked by the themes of consciousness, reflection, and the aesthetic qualities of lived experience. I admit I skimmed the essay on Freud, but the other three challenged my ideas about how to do research and what research even is. I’ll be mining this book when I eventually write my manifesto about the aesthetics of play.

5. The Invisible Heart, Nancy Folbre [buy]
Folbre identifies a major hidden assumption in economic theory: that all work is alike. She points out how caring work, such as nursing or teaching, functions differently from other kinds of labor, and why it’s problematic to treat them the same way. She also argues that assigning caring work exclusively to women compounds these problems, and injures men and women alike.

6. Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel Willingham [buy]
When I’m asked for an accessible book about the psychology of learning, this is what I recommend. Willingham covers nine core cognitive principles of learning, ones that have been proven both in the lab and in the field. He even shows how students, teachers, and parents can apply these principles in practice. Useful, readable, and accurate.

7. Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, Joan C. Williams [buy]
Working-class families face different problems than upper-middle-class families do. Seems obvious, right? But Williams uses data to argue that the vast majority of American families need a different approach to work-life balance than an elite minority do, and that feminism must work for both types of balance in a way that serves men and women alike. Persuasive and very, very important.

8. Honeybee Democracy, Thomas D. Seeley [buy]
This book appears to be about bees. Why do bees swarm when they do? How do they communicate about swarming? How do they choose a new site for their hive? However, the book is also a beautiful look at how researchers ask questions, design experiments, and figure out answers. Any budding scientist should read this.

9. Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine [buy]
The best takedown of “neurosexism” – the notion that men and women have different brains – that I’ve ever seen. Fine demonstrates that the research purporting to “prove” cognitive differences mostly doesn’t show what it claims to, and she’s quite good about pointing out the few places where the evidence really is strong. My favorite section? Her demonstration of why it’s nearly impossible to raise your kids without strong cultural messages about gender, which blows a lot of casual talk about the “naturalness” of gendered behavior out of the water.

10. Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love, William Kolbrener [buy]
Lovely, thoughtful, witty essays on Judaic topics – from specific Torah stories to the landmarks of the Jewish year. Two things tie the book together. First, Kolbrener’s style: he moves smoothly back and forth between traditional Jewish sources, literary analysis, and memoir. Second, his commitment to allowing his Jewish and intellectual lives to reflect on and illuminate each other. Warning: if you aren’t relatively familiar with Jewish concepts, this may be a hard read, but he does a reasonable job of signposting and it’s worth the trouble.

11. Switch, Chip Heath & Dan Heath [buy]
How can you change your behavior? The Heath brothers bring together vivid stories and research on behavior change into a single model: the elephant, the rider, and the path. Learn to engage your subconscious elephant, your rational-minded rider, and design a path that’s easy to walk down! It may sound like self-help pap, but it’s actually rigorous, thoughtful, well-written, and highly accessible. Bonus: these techniques really work.

Bonus, Academic Text Edition: The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills [buy]
When he wrote this book, Mills was not a happy man about the state of sociology as a discipline. The first half of the book eviscerates most people working in the field at the time; the second half proposes a larger vision for what sociology is and can become. The epilogue is an inspiring and highly practical description of how to do effective interdisciplinary research that addresses real problems. I loved it all!

Happy reading!

2 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing. I’m always looking for good books to read and your summaries really drew me into why I should perhaps choose these.

    My own nonfiction recommendation from 2011: _The Death and Life of Great American Cities_ by Jane Jacobs. Jacobs was one of the foremost modern urban planning theorists. Unlike her predecessors in the field, she advocated for cities with vibrant street life and an intricate interplay of many uses in a small area. In this classic book, she engagingly recounts the successes and failures of various experiments in urban planning. She’s particularly detailed about New York, where she lived for many years. Her book breaks down the components of a cohesive, stimulating neighborhood and describes what it takes to obtain each one.

  2. Sally says:

    A great list, Jessica.

    “Delusions of Gender” occupies a pivotal niche in my bookcase too.

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