Four non-fiction reads to make you smarter this summer

Let’s say you’re sitting by a pool, lounging on a patio, enjoying an evening on a deck, laying out at a beach, or pretty much partaking in any other summertime activity. You’ve got your essentials: sunscreen, sandals, snacks, sunglasses, beach blanket, and…books? If not, it’s time to lay claim to your next summer read!

Summer reading lists often get reduced to frivolous love stories or guilty pleasure reads, but not this one! Non-fiction books get a bad rap for being boring, dry, and historical. Some are boring. Some are dry. Some are historical. But there are terribly dull and dry historical fiction books as well. So give me a break, and bust out of your comfort zone! Here are four non-fiction books guaranteed to make you smarter this summer, and, as a bonus, they’re entertaining as well!

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics – Stephen Greenblatt

In the interest of full disclosure I must admit this is more a preview than review because this brand new book is first on my list of summer reading this year. Author Stephen Greenblatt is a genius Shakespearean scholar, and author/editor of The Norton Shakespeare. Consequently, if you want a dry and historical read, The Norton Shakespeare might be for you! Not Tyrant, however. In this latest endeavor, Greenblatt uses the numerous accounts of tyranny from Shakespeare’s works as a basis for a modern political commentary on current world politics. And you just know he’s got plenty of fuel for the fire when you pair the likes of cable news with lines such as, “An infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise breaker, the owner of no one good quality.” – William Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well

The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson

This is one of those rare books that I would drop everything you’re doing right this instant, go out and find, and stay up all night reading. The story is both macabre and fascinating. Against the backdrop of the Chicago World’s Fair, a serial killer sets up shop in a boarding house offering to rent rooms to single women travelling alone. He goes seemingly unnoticed as the hundreds of thousands who flock to Chicago for the Fair, fail to miss the handful in their midst that go missing. This book is written as two interwoven narratives; the first, the story of the team responsible for construction the World’s Fair, and the unimaginable obstacles they overcome; the second, the story of notorious American serial killer, H.H. Holmes, and his boarding house of horrors. Erik Larson’s storytelling ability is masterful, and I honestly forgot I was reading a non-fiction book until I reached his pages of meticulous documentation at the end of the book. Both threads of the story are incredible. And, as rumor is it’s being adapted for a movie, it’s one worth reading before it hits the big screen.

A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

If you’ve never experienced Bill Bryson’s writing style before, it pretty much sells itself. It’s witty, endearing, and downright informative, while never feeling showy or pompous. A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of his longer reads, so if number of pages deters you, I might recommend Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and/or A Walk in the Woods, as smaller, introductory doses of Bryson’s style. But honestly, I would just dive right into this one because it will make you a little smarter in, well, “nearly everything”! Of the book Bryson writes, “If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here-and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better.”

The Feather Thief – Kirk Wallace Johnson

This book is peculiar, which does not sound like a ringing endorsement. But don’t pass by it just because it’s different. What’s odd about it is the subject matter, the heist of 299 rare bird skins from the British natural history museum. Rare bird skins? Like I said, the book is peculiar. However, the story is incredibly intriguing, and Johnson takes a subject seemingly unexplored in narrative non-fiction, and tells it as a brilliant and mysterious thriller. But why would anyone want rare bird skins, you ask? Turns out there’s a HUGE market for such a thing. But what they’re for, you’ll have to read and find out. I was definitely surprised.

Honorable mentions:
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir
Scrappy Little Nobody
The Art of Choosing

See! You’re smarter already!



Published by Kate

A former Wisconsinite, Kate now resides in southeast Minnesota with her husband where she teaches high school English and theater. She recently completed her master's degree in learning design and technology, and continues to study and advocate for arts integration in the classroom. A recipient of the RISE America grant for high school theater, Kate is working to innovate and expand theater opportunities for the students at PIHS. An avid distance runner, concert pianist, and want-to-be wine aficionado, Kate's blog "ink." is a passion project, embodying all the best parts of life: friends, food, wine, thoughtful conversation, style, and sass!

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