Six nonfiction books that changed me in 2017

Jeff vonKaenel

I love to read books. While I find newspapers and the internet excellent for gathering information, books help me gain understanding and perspective. What’s more, books propel me into another world which I find both relaxing and stimulating. Audiobooks, in particular, have changed my life. I drive while listening to audiobooks. I lift weights while a marvelous professional reader tells me an engaging story. I even look forward to doing the dishes.

I spend an insane amount of time listening to and reading books. And a fair amount of time figuring out what books to spend time with. I study the notable books lists, I review the national book awards and, of course, I get recommendations from friends.

The following six nonfiction books are the ones that most impacted me this year. They were fun to read and changed my thinking.

1. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond researched this book by living for more than a year in rundown Milwaukee housing. He told not only stories of the tenants but also of the landlords. In the midst of these heart-wrenching stories is data on evictions and housing costs, which makes the poverty ecosystem understandable.

2. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. This book illuminated the bacteria friends and foes inside me. British science writer Ed Yong entertainingly explains how scientists have gained a better understanding of our small companions as well as what these little ones do. We cannot live without them.

3. The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion. Along with a summer binge of Didion books, this one changed my perspective of Sacramento, American foreign policy and the Democratic Party. Reading her bio, as well as her books The White Album, Miami and Democracy, let me occupy one of the most insightful and bravest minds of our time.

4. Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon explores how the Bobby of the 1950s and the Bobby of the 1960s were different, and yet the same. Listening to Larry Tye’s well-researched book, I yearned for a political leader with this substance, who could reach both minority and white blue-collar workers. And, I wondered where America would be today if he had not been killed before his 43rd birthday.

5. Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. Before I read this book, I had an enthusiastic but superficial perspective on breasts. Florence Williams’ book changed that. While it includes tons of interesting facts, what I found most fascinating were the mechanics of breasts. She wrote about how the structure of the breast changes in preparation for nursing, how the chemistry of breast milk changes as the baby develops and more complexities of nursing.

6. Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs. Reading this book, as well as Jane Jacobs’ books The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities, changed my perspective of urban Sacramento. Her previous roles as a journalist and urban activist give her a unique perspective that focuses on how people shop, move around and interact with the urban environment. And then Robert Kanigel tells Jacobs’ own remarkable story.

I read many wonderful books this year. This would not have been possible without the Sacramento Public Library. I would love to hear your suggestions for what I should read in 2018. Please email me.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.