It’s once again time to recommend some literary nonfiction that could be used with high school teens or adult students. I look for books that:
- Are well-written, but not stuffy
- Have some images in them
- Tie-in to academic work, current events, or students’ interests
- Can often be found in libraries
- Readily available discounted or secondhand
Here are my three recommendations from my second quarter nonfiction reading.
South: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition
After being beat in his attempt to plant the British flag on the South Pole by a Norwegian, Sir Earnest Shackleton determined that the first expedition to cross Antarctica would be British.
South is Shackleton’s record of that heroic failure which played out in polar ice at the bottom of the world as other heroic British failures occurred in the trenches in France.
Shackleton’s record is riveting. Men suffered from cold and their own body heat, from malnutrition, injuries, and boredom.
The final third of the book, which Shackleton compiled from notes by members of separate party, lacks the impact of personal experience.
I wouldn’t recommend South as a book for all-class reading. (The paperback’s text is blurry like bad photocopies, and long paragraphs combine technical terms with British slang.)
South is, however, a book that a few students interested in science, history, geography, or psychology might dip into. The photos should interest just about anyone.
South: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition, by Sir Ernest Shackleton, ©2016 Skyhorse Publishing. 380 p. [paper]
The Disaster Profiteers
John C. Mutter was a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
That event led Mutter to study the social sciences to understand why natural disasters are disastrous in ways that have little to do with their physical consequences.
Mutter reached the conclusion, “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”
Natural disasters do some good in, for example, destroying unsafe infrastructure. Even those “good” effects, Mutter saws, hurt the poor far more than they do the more affluent and their negative impacts affect the poor for far longer.
The Disaster Profiteers would be good literary nonfiction for older teens, particularly those in dual enrollment programs, and for adults in post-secondary training.
Mutter does a great job of making the science of natural disasters understandable. His presentation of how economists measure the scale of disasters is less readily grasped: A national economy isn’t as visual as a national disaster. But with help from some informal writing prompts, students could identify and master the big ideas.
The images in the book are primarily graphs, charts, and maps.
The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer by John C. Mutter. ©2015 St. Martin’s Press. 281 p.
Profiles in Folly
Unlike the other two literary nonfiction books discussed here, Alan Axelrod’s Profiles in Folly is a not a single story, but a collection of 35 magazine-length “cautionary tales” about bad decisions and the people who made them.
Some of the bad decisions were made by political leaders, others by businessmen, military leaders, and engineers.
The stories cover decisions from 1250 BC (the Trojan Horse) to 2005 (George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina). Topics include smoking, the space shuttle, planned obsolescence, and the Pony Express.
Profiles in Folly would lend itself to a half-year or full-year high school project involving multiple faculty who assign students certain of the chapters to read, discuss, and write about in the context of a particular class.
There are no images in the book.
Profiles in Folly: History’s Worst Decisions And Why They Went Wrong by Alan Axelrod. ©2008. Sterling Publishing. 358 p. [paper]
I bought this quarter’s recommended books at hamiltonbook.com for less than $8 apiece.