One of the benefits of slowing down my reading this summer has been wandering through a list I’ve kept of books I thought sounded interesting but that I hadn’t yet picked up. Most of the titles on this list are non-fiction and most of them are adult non-fiction. It’s a category of books I’ve always loved, but I don’t gravitate toward them as much as I once did.
Over the last few months, though, I’ve found myself seeking them out pretty voraciously. It’s not just in the act of slowing down, but it’s also because I’ve been working really hard to readjust some of the flow and focus of my life. I’ve really become invested in trying new things and pushing my thinking and creative limits in new ways. This has manifested in taking some risks and completing projects I’ve thought about but never found the [fill in the blank excuse] to do. This summer, I relearned how to cross stitch and picked up needle felting. I signed myself up for a class on pursuing your dreams for the fall, and I am really ready to dive right in to trying my hand at art journaling. I did a massive house cleaning that required renting a dumpster for hauling away the things I no longer needed, wanted, or had room for in my life.
Choosing to pursue the things that are interesting me at the moment means that I am finally picking up those books on the list. They tend to fall under the category of interesting reads on specific topics. I’d call them microhistories, but it’s not quite the correct term, nor does it encompass the books outside of this particular category I’ve been reading.
Here’s a look at some recent non-fiction I’ve read. Each of these ticked a box for me in some way, and I’m really eager to keep pushing through my list and reading more books that are outside of my comfort/quick pick zone. Having decided to finally try my hand at reading on my phone and using the free trial at Oyster (note: that’s not an affiliate link!), I made a big old list of books that have caught my attention and I’d like to dedicate some time to.
How much do you know about the history of Monopoly? This was a fast-paced read that totally took everything I thought I knew about the classic game and turned it on its head. And, perhaps most interesting and/or infuriating about this, was the history of the game was one of removing the female creator.
In 1904, Lizzie Magie created a game that would become the model for Monopoly. Yet, her side of the story was never told when the Parker Brothers began producing it during the Great Depression. Anyone who has purchased the game — at least, I think it’s still the case in modern editions — knows the “story” behind the game comes in the box. But it’s incomplete, and Pilon’s book offers up the underbelly of greed and scandal.
At times, the legal elements of the book weigh down the narrative, but one of the things that works so well for me when it comes to non-fiction is that these parts are easy to breeze through without feeling like I’m missing out. This book lent itself perfectly to that. The parts that really fascinated me I could linger over and the less-interesting elements I could pass by without feeling like I wasn’t getting something from the read.
An easy, readable book that fans of board games, social history, and the overlooked contributions of women to business should pick up.
The Great Beanie Baby Bubble by Zac Bissonnette
Readers of a certain age probably remember the huge beanie baby phenomenon of the late 90s/early 2000s. This book takes a deep dive into the craze, including what caused it and what eventually made the bubble pop. It’s particularly fascinating for anyone who grew up in the Chicago area; I hadn’t realized that all of this sort of originated in my own backyard. It made a lot of the “craze” that surrounded the trend make more sense to me now, as an adult. I have memories of my mom taking me to O’Hare airport — back in the days before security! — so we could hit up the beanie baby store that was inside.
What made this book so compelling was just how rigid and gross Ty Warner was as a leader of his company. Bissonnette isn’t particularly sympathetic, but the way Ty is rendered — and his ego — is well done and eye-opening. “Limited” and “retired” beanie babies were little more than tools used to raise profits for the company, which anyone who understands basic business understands, but what made this fascinating was how those who collected these, hoping to make a profit, were the ones ultimately put out the most, as their toys didn’t do what they thought they would do. The insight into how Ty worked with McDonald’s for the Happy Meal beanies was a particularly interesting element of the book.
Remember old and new face teddies and how having an “old face” bear meant you had something valuable? The reason the bear’s face changed was 100% because of cuteness. Ty’s focus was on creating the cutest toys possible at a price point that virtually anyone could buy into, though his choice in the stores the toys were available in was very purposeful. You couldn’t get them at large retailers, but rather, at specialty stores only.
This was easily one of the better non-fiction titles I’ve read, and I would recommend it to anyone curious about the behind-the-scenes of a huge phenomenon.
Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off The Grid and Beyond The American Dream by William Powers
I’m fascinated and appalled by the tiny house trend. I hate-watch House Hunters: Tiny Homes pretty passionately. It took me a long time to sort of put my finger on what it was that really annoyed me about the trend and the people who are living this way, and it comes down to this: the same people who are being “eco-conscious” and “budget conscious” in purchasing tiny homes are the same people who would quickly ridicule the people who live in trailer homes because they have no other options. It’s exceptionally privileged, especially as many tiny housers end up getting free land from family to park their custom-built shacks.
Enter Powers and his radical plan to live in a 12×12 tiny house outside of Durham, North Carolina. When I started to read this one, I hesitated a bit, worried that it would be about how enlightened he became to this new way of life and how phenomenally important it was to do things this way in order to be a good human. But this book is not that at all. Instead, Powers talks about the very things this lifestyle affords people who are privileged, and he has enough self-awareness to pick apart the choices he’s made in his own life to see how much of a White Man With Privilege legacy he’s left. The insights are smart and thought provoking, and they don’t shy away from talking about race and racism, including what he witnesses on the property where the tiny home is parked. It isn’t his home, either — it’s one he’s borrowing while a local well known doctor who owns the place is off gridding out west.
What really resonated with me, and the biggest take away from this book, was how Powers talks about what purpose we as people should have on Earth and how it is we should figure out our calling. He does this through noting that the tiny house life and choosing to “do less” isn’t the answer. It can be a means to an answer and it can be a distraction to those who think it’s an answer. Rather, everyone has to have periods where they focus and think through their lives and what it is they can do to improve the world. His own moment of enlightenment wasn’t about how he traveled to other countries and “helped the poor” — in fact, he says he regrets some of the White Savioring that he took part in during those trips — but rather, about how he can enter into the world, respecting the world, and offering himself wholly to it as it is. For him, it’s about doing one nice, selfless thing per day for someone else. It’s simple, but it’s powerful.
I loved Powers’s tone and how he navigates himself through complex social and sociopolitical/economic issues. I’m eager to pick up another book of his because I feel like a lot of how he approaches life offers up much for me to chew on. And that’s what he gets at, too: no one can tell you the answers to your life’s mission and no one can tell you the answers. It’s your responsibility to think about it for yourself, listening to others who have forged their paths and taking/leaving from that what does/doesn’t/won’t/can’t work for you. The answer to his life wasn’t in the tiny house.
All three books are available now and were borrowed from either the library or via Oyster.