If you are looking for downtime reading, here are a few of my favorite, most enjoyable nonfiction choices from my reviews for Zócalo Public Square:
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
By Barbara Demick
As Barbara Demick introduces it, North Korea is quite literally a dark spot in East Asia. At night the country goes black. From space, it looks like a hole surrounded by the electrified cities in South Korea, China and Japan. “When outsiders stare into the void that is today’s North Korea, they think of remote villages of Africa or Southeast Asia where the civilizing hand of electricity has not yet reached,” Demick writes. “But North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of development.”
Demick addresses this darkness and the history that felled a once progressing nation, but Nothing to Envy is particularly compelling when it’s personal. Demick tells stories of North Koreans with whom Americans can empathize. Six real people fall in love, start businesses, and fight with their mothers — all while struggling with hunger and brutal politics and, eventually, refugee life. It is a cinematic book, reminiscent at once of an epic war film and John Hersey’s classic reportage in Hiroshima.
Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory
By Peter Hessler
Country Driving begins with a driver’s license. It is the story of rapid change in China’s diverse landscapes — dying villages, growing villages, and booming factory towns — joined by highways and an ever increasing number of cars. “By the summer of 2001, when I applied to the Beijing Public Safety Traffic Bureau, I had lived in China for five years,” Peter Hessler writes. “During that time I had traveled passively by bus and plane, boat and train; I dozed across provinces and slept through towns. But sitting behind the wheel woke me up.”
It is not particularly surprising that a ubiquitous literary critic finds our growing e-mail culture soul-crushing. John Freeman was a freelance writer before becoming the editor of Granta, the century-old literary magazine. He is dedicated to books, to narrative, to all things that pithy online interactions are not.
So it is also not surprising that The Tyranny of E-mail is a slow and reasoned plea for, well, slow and reasoned communication. It begins with a lament for inky love letters and continues on a lyrical history of the written word delivered, from the kings and generals who sent news on horses and pigeons to the revolutionizing speed of the telegram. Freeman connects today’s common e-mail problems — flaming, spam and privacy — with similar issues wrought by the creation of an affordable postal service.