Have you ever met anyone who takes it upon themselves to decide what or who does and does not qualify for a particular group or designation? That’s a gatekeeper folks, and they are the worst. Gatekeepers are all over the place, but the first that come to mind exist in fandoms like Doctor Who (CW for language), heavy metal (CW for language), and believe it or not: public libraries. This is counterintuitive, no? Libraries are meant to welcome all. ALL. EVERYONE. So who is doing the gatekeeping? I see gatekeeping pop up in conversations about whether or not listening to an audiobook is “really” reading (it is!) and don’t even get me started about the total lack of respect reading communities have for romance as a genre. There’s also this ongoing literary fiction vs chick lit “debate” because obviously anything women like is less-than /s.
Additionally, these days I have been noticing gatekeepers lurking in our hallowed halls of non-fiction. The narrow view I encounter in the course of my work is that only very SERIOUS books about SERIOUS things like WAR and MEN are “real” non-fiction and everything else is a fluffy nonsensical waste of time. The point being missed by these non-fiction gatekeepers is that non-fiction encompasses all aspects of our lives. Non-fiction as a collection is vast, deep, and wide, and is certainly not limited to dusty academic screeds about World War II and, oh, I don’t know…Ulysses S. Grant. Below, I highlighted several subsections of the non-fiction side of the library that are not only very popular, but full of excellent information. Click on each title to see the catalog listing which often features a brief description.
Invisible (2018) by Stephen L. Carter
The subtitle of this true crime book tells us everything we need to know: “The forgotten story of the black woman lawyer who took down America’s most powerful mobster.” I’m in. I don’t even care which mobster is being referred to, I want to read about the smart lady being smart in a world that didn’t make space for people who look like her.
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (2003) by Job Krakauer
Y’all. This book. It’s a history lesson on the absolute bananas story of the Church of Latter Day Saints as well as the shocking crime the church’s most controversial tenets helped precipitate. Under the Banner of Heaven is getting the small-screen treatment, and I am going to watch the hell out of it, but this book is not to be missed. Krakauer is kind of a stud in the pop nonfiction world, and most of his titles bear a closer look; Into Thin Air (1997) and Into the Wild (1996) are two of his other most-popular titles, both with well-received screen adaptations.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) by John Berendt
Forget the movie adaptation. It does no justice here. If you have not had a chance to read this book in the last thirty or so years, there’s no time like the present. Midnight is a true crime book that reads like a zany caper novel crossed with the society gossip pages, but people really died. Non-fiction gatekeepers would NOT include this book in their list of REAL non-fiction, and that truly is their loss.
Know My Name: A Memoir (2019) by Chanel Miller
A must-read for anyone who is baffled at the unmitigated nightmare of rape culture, and why the justice system is so preoccupied with protecting the perpetrators of rape, but not so much the victims (hint: it’s misogyny).
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (1997) by Anne Fadiman
My Sheboygan public school experience in the 1980s and 90s could have been so much richer if lessons about the culture and experiences of our Hmong immigrant neighbors had been incorporated into the regular curriculum. We can make up for this deficit ever so slightly by reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.
Men Explain Things To Me (2015) by Rebecca Solnit
Solnit is one of the best American essayists of all time, and she’s still in her prime. This 2015 collection features her arguably most famous essay, Men Explain Things To Me (2008) which you can read HERE. Solnit was able to articulate how infuriating it is to be doubted as an expert in your field, often by men, and managed to help coin the term “mansplain”. Real queen shit, you know?
Bad Feminist (2014) by Roxane Gay
Another luminary in the essayist community. Gay is an acute cultural observer who writes from the perspective of a black woman of size in a world that wants us to be small and quiet. Gay’s observations on feminism, politics, and popular culture is some of the most engaging writing published so far in the 21st century. Her influence is more profound than one may realize, as she has been writing for the excellent Black Panther: World of Wakanda graphic novel series.
Hallucinations (2012) by Oliver Sacks
Sacks has been gone for seven years now, but I don’t think I will ever stop recommending his work. He dedicated his life to neurology and learning about brain function, eventually becoming a compassionate giant in his field. Sacks’ career was punctuated by publishing collections of what are essentially case studies every few years. Hallucinations was his penultimate work, and I cannot bring myself to read his final book Gratitude, because I do not feel like weeping openly. He wrote Gratitude knowing he would die within months from terminal cancer, so he took the opportunity to document his own brain decline. Oliver Sacks was a generous, patient, brilliant person and the world is poorer without him. His most famous work includes Awakenings, which was adapted into a major motion picture, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (1985), still excellent 40 years later.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by Rebecca Skloot
The fascinating tale of how the polio vaccine was developed, as well as an examination of the infuriating and ongoing history of black bodies being used in industry without consent or compensation.
The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer (2010) by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Massively, perennially popular, book club pick til the end of days. Read it to learn what all the heartbreaking fuss is about. Why is science so often heartbreaking?
If the inclusion of any of the above listed titles fills you with impotent rage, the gatekeeping is coming from inside the house. Let people enjoy things. I will probably never read anything by Brene Brown, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the value everyone else finds in her work. Let’s stop measuring the perceived worth of the media we love against the media other people love. I think it’s weird that people will go out of their way to denigrate other people’s favorites & this is my small bid to encourage thought before judgement.
As ever and always, do not hesitate to reach out for more book recommendations (consider using the Your Next Five Books tool HERE) or help requesting material. You can reach Mead librarians by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or call 902-459-3400. Go on now, go on and git.