||When you make your living as a writer, it's easy to forget that great writing is art. I described my work recently to a new friend who said, delightedly, "You're an artist!" I usually don't think of myself that way, but try to stay inspired by reading wonderful writing as often as I can.
Here's a very personal, totally biased, clearly incomplete list of favorite non-fiction books. (Please email yours!)
"Kitchen Confidential", Anthony Bourdain. Hilarious, well-written account of life as a New York City chef.
"Life, Death and Bialys", Dylan Schaffer. An unlikely memoir of learning to bake bread with his dying stepfather. Poignant and biting.
"Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight" and "Scribbling the Cat", Alexandra Fuller. She grew up in Rhodesia and writes with great power and sensuality about Africa. If you've been there, her writing in these two memoirs, NYT best-sellers both, takes you right back. If you haven't, it makes you want to go.
"Indefensible", David Feige. What life is really like inside the Bronx criminal courthouse, written with outrage and wit by a former public defender.
"Are You Somebody?", Nuala O'Faolain. An Irish journalist talks about her life in no uncertain terms.
"Brown", Richard Rodriguez. Cranky, smart, provocative, elegant. Must we view everything through the filters of race? Rodriguez told an audience at the 2002 Neiman conference he felt he was crying in the wilderness when writing this terrific book. What a shame if true!
"No Logo", Naomi Klein. This young Canadian writer has made the globe her niche. This fascinating book addresses the many political, economic and psychological effects of coporate control and globalization.
"Lost Illusions", Honoré de Balzac. This classic novel, written between 1837 and 1843, works just as well today as a guide to the symbiosis of ambition and greed binding would-be
and their publishers. Follow the trials of Lucien, a naïve and ambitious poet. "You bite the hand that feeds you - and you can toss off an article as easily as I can smoke a cigar", says
when Lucien struggles for decent pay. Plus ça change..
"Small Victories", Samuel Freedman. A former New York Times reporter describes a year in the life of Seward Park, a Manhattan public school.
"An Unquiet Mind", Kay Redfield Jamison. A moving memoir by a female M.D. who suffers from manic depression.
"Down and Out in Paris and London", George Orwell. Plain, powerful prose.
"Crossings", Walt Harrington. This white Washington Post feature writer, married to a black woman, decided to learn firsthand how blacks in America live by crossing the U.S., interviewing everyone from sharecroppers to businessmen.
"A Natural History of The Senses", Diane Ackerman. Sensual, delicious.
"Backlash", by Susan Faludi. Lucid fury.
"Alpha Bravo", Marina Warner. A former Newsweek writer, this amateur pilot flew her small plane across the U.S., telling the story of the little towns, airfields and fellow fliers she met along the way.
"There are No Children Here", Alex Kotlowitz. Life in Chicago's Cabrini Green housing projects.
"Savage Inequalities", Jonathan Kozol. A portrait of two very different American schools, one wealthy, one poor.
"Maiden Voyage", Tania Aiebi with Bernadette Brennan. A 17-year-old girl sails her boat singlehandedly around the world.
"Tracks", Robyn Davidson. A woman walks alone across the Australian outback.
"Bird By Bird" and "Operating Instructions", by Anne Lamott. The former is an encouraging, supportive book about how to write. The latter is a funny, moving, memorable diary of her first year being a single mom to a baby boy.
Anything by American food writer M.F.K. Fisher, travel writer Pico Iyer, American writers Joan Didion, Barbara Ehrenreich or Molly Ivins and British writer Anthony Sampson, whose books range from a history of the airline industry to "Drum", his account of working on a South African newspaper.