The NCAA basketball tournament, the annual 64-team*, billion dollar cultural force known as “March Madness”, fundamentally owes its commercial success to an underlying promise: the unpredictability of truly unscripted drama.
*I know, I know. It’s officially 68 teams, but…c’mon.
The first weekend of the tournament primarily revolves around one narrative: David vs. Goliath. As the tournament progresses, narratives are updated to most effectively keep people invested in the competition so that cars, carbonated beverages and corn chips can be sold. They use basketball games to tell stories of perseverance, falls from grace, comebacks, redemption, vindication and triumph through creativity or innovation.
As the annual tournament moves into its second weekend, I’m sharing with you my Sweet 16 of unscripted stories of perseverance, falls from grace, comebacks, redemption, vindication and triumph through creativity or innovation, aka non-fiction. These are all non-fiction titles I’ve recently (or somewhat recently) read and, like the 16 teams remaining in the NCAA tournament, they are all very good and have earned their way onto this list. In the spirit of tournament**, I’ve divided these 16 books into four categories, or regionals if you will: Memoir, Media, Music and Miscellaneous. For each, I pick my favorite to advance to a (fictional) Final Four.
** …or selling a contrived premise. You make the call! If you’re looking for a good non-fiction read, here’s the tip…
Memoir Regional H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald – I was having this conversation just yesterday about how in an exceptional writer’s hands, any subject can be riveting. Macdonald is such a writer. The story of how she dealt with the grief of her father’s sudden death through immersing herself into the training of a goshawk, H is for Hawk is a revelation. Part exploration of loss, part treatise on man’s relationship with animals and part deconstruction of a centuries-old tradition, H is for Hawk soars beautifully.
The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison and Unspeakable, by Meghan Dahm – A bit of a cheat here, trying to squeeze two different books into one slot here***. They’re both exceptionally smart and probing essay collections that mine the author’s personal experiences to explore thorny, under-examined aspects of human emotions.
***…or a tribute to a 64-team tournament that has 68 teams
Lit, by Mary Karr – Oh Mary Karr, you delight and shatter me in equal measure. Every three or four pages in Karr’s memoir of alcoholism and recovery has a passage or phrase so exquisitely and originally written it that it stops me in my reading tracks and makes me want to never write again. I will never write anything as good as the 64th (or 68th) best thing passage in Lit.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? , by Roz Chast – New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s hilarious, poignant and unsparingly honest graphic novel about her experience caring for her elderly parents keeps you laughing and squirming with deep recognition.
Autobiography, by Morrissey – Stories are told. Drama unfolds. Slights are recorded. Grievances are aired and re-aired. Scores are settled. All is breathlessly recounted in the unmistakable, petty, poetic, dramatic, Bronte-esque, self-lacerating, self-aggrandizing, trenchant and singular voice of Morrissey. An absolute must-read for any Smiths or Morrissey fan.
Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson – Where does an individual’s tastes in music come from? Is there neurological hardwiring that determines what we enjoy, or are our tastes completely a social construct? In this slim volume, part of the terrific 33 1/3 series from Bloomsbury, Wilson provides a wide-ranging philosophical survey of the various schools of thought for where and how a person obtains his/her musical preferences. A little on the academic side, but very readable and so, so fascinating.
Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove , by Ahmir Questlove Thompson – Roots co-founder and Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon bandleader, Questlove set down an intimate, honest, insightful, sly and immensely smart meditation on the way music can impact and shape a life. Mo’ Meta Blues effortlessly earns the highest compliment I can give a memoir: I didn’t want to leave Questlove’s company. I would read Questlove’s writing about medieval laundry techniques.
Rip It Up and Start Again, by Simon Reynolds and Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, by Will Hermes – Another two-for-one. I tethered these together because they both vividly tell the stories of a particular music scene: the rise, fall and aftermath of the UK punk scene in Rip it Up and Start Again and the mid-70’s New York music scene in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. I found them both riveting with a concrete and aural their sense of time and place. Both bring their respective scenes to life, making icons like Johnny Rotten and Bruce Springsteen human-sized, actual people who interacted with other nobodys who became somebodys. Each also illuminates the ways that the creation of music is not merely a matter of plucking divine fruits from the creative ether three, but rather a conversation with and reaction to the music happening around the artists and the music that came before.
My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles, by Peter Biskind – If you have any interest in classic Hollywood, this is the smartest, most erudite gossip rag ever assembled. Orson Welles was a Hollywood legend (and legendarily difficult person) whose career spanned from pre-WW II Era radio (his infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, for example) through his death in 1985. He knew and had an opinion on everyone and everything. Welles was a literal genius, a polymath who could hold forth on a wide-range of topics. But his experiences with and opinions on Hollywood royalty – Hepburn, Bogart, Olivier, etc. – and not are alone worth the price of admission. Any Hollywood buff will lap this up.
The Big Screen: The Story of Movies and What They Have Done to Us, by David Thomson – If you’re looking for a deep and comprehensive history of the movies, this is your book. Legendary New York Times film critic and author of more than 20 books on movies David Thomson offers an at times loving, at times mordant, always illuminating history of moving pictures. He covers not only the people who created, shaped, popularized and changed the visual language of viewing entertainment, but also the technological, cultural and historical influences that shaped the medium and that the medium shaped.
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery and a Masquerade, by Walter Kirn – Journalist and novelist Walter Kirn lays himself bare for public humiliation in this memoir about his years-long friendship with Clark Rockefeller, aka Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, the German imposter, criminal and (later) convicted murderer. The story is almost unbelievable. The fact that Kirn would, himself, share the story of how he was duped takes courage or desperation beyond my grasp.
All The Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai – For the last 30 year, Gary Hart has been a punch line, a cautionary tale and a signifier for received political wisdom. In All the Truth is Out, journalist Matt Bai revisits the Gary Hart story (i.e., his “monkey business” with the now-notorious Donna Rice) and separates myth from fact. Bai’s central argument is that, for a variety of cultural and technological reasons, this scandal is the inflection point at which the U.S. media pivoted from their previous coverage standards and became the purveyors of “gotcha” tabloid tripe that obscures the issues affecting governance and keeps many of our best minds from entering the political area. Bai’s premise relies heavily on one of my all-time must-read books, Neal Postman’s eerily prescient Amusing Ourselves to Death (a bonus, standing must-read recommendation there).
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore – Wonder Woman is a super hero icon, a feminist symbol and the product of the bizarre theories and sexual psychodrama of William Moulton Marston. Lepore, a Harvard historian and author, traces Woman Woman’s creation to early suffragist’s movement. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is as much a riveting history of the movement, its leader and public face, Margaret Sanger, and Marston, the inveterate, indefatigable professional failure, than about Wonder Woman. Lepore’s research is exhaustive and she tells a compelling and unique human story while also capturing the scope of a great social upheaval.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach – Just read Mary Roach. Trust me. If you want to learn about science history and its magnificent oddities, and laugh…out loud…a lot…read Mary Roach. Stiff is my personal favorite. All of her books are informative and hilarious.
The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, by Jill Lepore – The Mansion of Happiness is a collection of loosely-connected essays exploring The Meaning of Life (capital “T”, capital “M”, capital “L”). It turns out that the answer to this grand, existential question frequently turns on the unexpected and, often, the seemingly prosaic. For example, Lepore documents and builds a compelling case that photography and political gamesmanship did far, far more to create the “right to life” movement—before Roe v. Wade—than organized religions did. Researched, even-handed, counterintuitive and endlessly surprising, The Mansion of Happiness is guaranteed to make you see things in a whole new way.
Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980’s, by Jeff Pearlman – It’s only fitting to end with a basketball book. Pearlman digs deep in his research and interviews countless people to bring to life the Showtime Lakers era. From the personalities of the only-one-name-required legends in the title, to the Studio 54-like atmosphere at the stadium’s Forum Club, to the peculiar characters of the team’s secondary players, management and owners, Showtime is the dishy, informative, and immensely entertaining definitive biography of one of sports’ legendary dynasties.
It’s impossible to prolong this basketball bracket conceit through to crown a champion. The final four are all terrific. Besides, any picks would, as they have been so far, compromised by recency bias. All the books on this list are very good. Pick any of them. You’ll win.