Match Book: Dear Match Book: I’m Seeking Newsy Nonfiction That Sparks Debate


Credit Joon Mo Kang

Dear Match Book,

I’m a member of a nonfiction book club for 20-somethings looking for books that generate debate and are under 400 pages. Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” inspired the liveliest discourse; We’ve also read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Unfinished Business”; “Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi (which I really loved, but it didn’t prompt much discussion) and “Option B,” by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant (a big hit). “When Breath Becomes Air,” by Paul Kalanithi, and “Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond, are on our to-read list. On my own, I’ve read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot, and it’d definitely be a good fit. “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J. D. Vance, have come up as well.

We prefer books that delve into social issues over those that are purely historical. What would be a good pick to keep the conversation going?

Alexandria, Va.

Dear Amy,

Many readers write in looking for books to take their minds off the news. I understand the impulse. But your group’s engagement with books that delineate intractable social problems gives me hope for the future.

Work Studies

A lot of the books you mention connect intimate portraits of individuals to broader perspectives. Two books about American workers fit the pattern. Jeanne Marie Laskas’s respectfully irreverent “Hidden America” tells the stories of Americans whose “invisible” jobs – coal miners, air traffic controllers and professional cheerleaders among them – keep the country running. Laskas pays attention to everything from the affectionate nicknames people call each other (“Lucifer” and “old bag,” between spouses) to the smell outside a settlement for migrant workers in rural Maine (“the blueberry scent lay like a fog over carpets of balsam”), so that readers will too.

In “Nickel and Dimed,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 classic of immersion journalism, the author doesn’t just report on the hardships faced by low-wage workers; she joins their ranks. For three months in 1998 Ehrenreich lives in motels and crummy efficiency apartments in Florida, Maine and Minnesota, working variously as a waitress, a “dietary aide” at a nursing home, a Wal-Mart “associate.” Along the way, she learns about officious managers, the toll physical work takes on (often uninsured) bodies and the “special costs” poverty entails.

The Future Is Female

Two short books about gender equality, “We Should All Be Feminists,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and “The Mother of All Questions,” by Rebecca Solnit, make a powerful discussion pair. In Adichie’s resolute, often droll adaptation of her 2012 TEDx talk, the MacArthur Fellowship-winning novelist builds her case with personal anecdotes of casual but devastating sexism in Nigeria and the United States. On the page, Adichie’s words retain the rousing cadence of a speech.

Solnit’s ruminative, lucid collection of essays on gender includes pieces on the dangers of silence and the shifting public responses to violence against women. Solnit’s mind ranges widely from social media to literature to the “leakiness” of language, in a style both contemplative and visceral.

In the End

As a companion to “When Breath Becomes Air,” consider reading Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal,” another intimate reflection on death and dying by a doctor. If you are a healthy, curious person, Gawande’s nuanced dispatches from the field of palliative care offer fascinating glimpses into an unfamiliar world. But if you are sick or caring for someone who is terminally ill, the profound mix of history, contemporary research and personal stories from a trained healer guiding his own physician father at the end of his life could feel like a lifeline.

Finally, you may want to add a book with the broadest earthly implications to your list. For such a sobering, scientific chronicle of humankind’s role in the decreasing diversity of life on our planet, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Sixth Extinction” contains a surprising amount of wonder. In the course of covering waves of animal deaths both ancient and contemporary, Kolbert reports from the rain forest on the plight of the Panamanian golden frog. She visits an island near Naples, Italy, to get a sense of “the seas of tomorrow” by swimming in water made “bubbly, acidified” by excess carbon dioxide. And, on the rough shores of the Great Barrier Reef, Kolbert watches a loggerhead turtle try and fail to find a place to lay an egg. In tracing the erosion of life around the world, Kolbert shows the mystery and beauty that remain and what we have yet to lose.

Yours truly,
Match Book

Do you need book recommendations? Write to matchbook@nytimes.com.

Check out Match Book’s earlier recommendations here.

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