So far in 2018, of the 114 books I’ve read (which DOES include the chapter books I read with my son at bedtime!) only 20 have been nonfiction. This is pretty representative of my reading habits. I am interested in nonfiction, especially memoirs, but nonfiction takes me longer to read than fiction, which makes me hesitant to pick it up. I keep feeling all those books on my TBR list looking over my shoulder as I take my time with a nonfiction book – on average, I’d say it takes me a good week longer to read one than it does a novel. This is all to say that it surprises me that my last three reads (one of which I’m currently reading) are all five star nonfiction reads, and they’re all published this year.
First up, The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton. I LOVED this book. Mr. Hinton spent 30 years on death row in Alabama for crimes he didn’t commit. The police and prosecution shamefully railroaded him in a sham of a trial and his court-appointed lawyer was disinterested at best. He only came up on the radar of the police because of an old grudge by a man who’d been interested in someone Hinton had dated. On Death Row, initially angry and with a heart full of vengeance at the injustice of the world and his situation, Hinton had an epiphany while hearing another man on the block crying in the night.
I didn’t know his story or what he had done or anything about him that made him different from me – hell, I didn’t know if he was black or white. But on the row, I realized, it didn’t matter. When you are trying to survive, the superficial things don’t matter. When you are hanging at the end of your rope, does it really matter what color the hand is that reached up to help you? What I knew was that he loved his mother just like I loved my mother. I could understand his pain.
… I realized the State of Alabama could steal my future and my freedom, but they couldn’t steal my soul or my humanity.
This book not only taught me about the power of forgiveness and the indomitable human spirit, it also made me question my thoughts on the death penalty. To Hinton, every man on death row with him was a child of God, and was not only the worst thing he ever did (or didn’t do, as his case showed.) He showed up for every man he watched walk past him on the way to the electric chair over the years by banging the bars of his cell and yelling, as did the other men in the block. It was a way to show them that in their darkest moment they weren’t alone, no matter what horrible action or circumstances led them there.
They called all of us monsters. But I didn’t know any monsters on the row. I knew guys named Larry and Henry and Victor and Jesse. I knew Vernon and Willie and Jimmy. Not monsters. Guys with names who didn’t have mothers who loved them or anyone who had ever shown them a kindness that was even close to love. Guys who were born broken or had been broken by life. Guys who had been abused as children and had heir minds and hearts warped by cruelty and violence and isolation long before they ever stood in front of a judge and jury.
There are so many parts of this book I made notes on, so many quotable passages. The story of his legal battle to freedom takes many twists and turns and kept me turning the pages just as his struggle to remain sane and humane on death row did. Eventually he ends up being represented by Bryan Stevenson, who wrote the bestseller Just Mercy and heads the Equal Justice Initiative. While in prison, Hinton forms a book club as a way to gain some mental freedom for himself and his fellow inmates. Funnily enough, the first book they choose is James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is my current Classics Club Spin pick! I just loved this book and I feel like it deserves a wide audience. If you have any desire to read books about social justice issues, the persistence of the human spirit, or just a page-turning memoir, please give this one a try.
My next five-star nonfiction read was Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. This is a far-reaching book, part true crime, part memoir, part history, part exploration of the role of the public library in today’s society. It was fascinating! Starting from the event of the largest library fire in the history of the United States, the devastating 1986 fire at Los Angeles’s Central Library, Orlean branches off from there to discuss her own history with public libraries and the special connection to her mother who always brought her there growing up. She investigates whether or not the main suspect in the fire, Harry Peak, actually started it. (I admit that by the end of the book, I couldn’t decide!) She delves into the formation and colorful history of the L.A. library system, and follows current department heads today to see how the library is impacting the community right now. All these strands are braided together beautifully. Anyone who cares the least little bit about public libraries should read this.
In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.
And last, I’m currently reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and I’m confident it will also earn five stars from me. Not surprisingly, she’s a beautiful writer. I’m about 130 pages in, or a third of the book. She’s dating Barack and they’re starting to realize just how serious the relationship is. I loved reading about her childhood growing up on the South Side of Chicago, her steady, loving parents and her close relationship with her older brother. I loved reading about her shy, buttoned down personality and her growing sense of confidence in herself. One tidbit I found fascinating is that in her kindergarten class picture, it’s about 50-50 black and white kids, but by fifth grade, it’s all black kids. She grew up right in the heart of the “white flight” of the 1960’s. I have enjoyed her reflections on her extended family and their journeys from the South to Chicago during the Great Migration. I’ve also liked getting to know our former president a little better, her first impressions of him and what drew them together. I admire her vulnerability and openness in this memoir and can’t wait to read more.
What was your favorite nonfiction book of 2018?