Non-fiction audio books

By | January 1, 2020

Deciding that most of what I was hearing on the news in the days of the Trump presidency was too depressing, I changed my morning routing in 2019 from starting my day with NPR to instead starting it with an audiobook. I decided, at least at first, to limit my listening to non-fiction. [I love my fiction too! Here’s my list of recommended fiction, as well as my recommended TV shows]

Here is what I’ve been listening to so far, listed in no particular order, and I will continue to keep this updated.

The Gene

Written by Siddhartha Mukherjee | Read by Dennis Boutsikaris

I love this book. It is a fascinating discussion about what genes are, telling the story starting with human fascination with it, the slow steps of human discovery, the abuses of euthanasia leading to the horrors of the Nazis, and later discoveries.

This book is masterfully, excellently narrated. I would likely listen to anything that Dennis Boutsikaris reads.


Travel as a Political Act

Written and read by Rick Steves

I have to start this with a confession: There is something syrupy about Rick Steve’s voice that repelled me for the many, many years that I’ve been a prolific NPR listener. I’d be happily listening to the radio, Rick Steves’ show would come on, and I would turn the radio off.

Now I realize how much really wonderful programming I’ve missed! [Hmm, there is a lesson here somewhere, I’m sure of it!]

As someone interested in world travel and only recently exposed to how mind-opening it can be, I thought I’d ignore my petty biases and give this book a try. I’m so glad that I did.

With chapters arranged by travel destination, this book is about opening your mind, getting out of your comfort zone, being open to learning new things, being empathetic and kind, and about experiencing life beyond the doors of the 4-star hotels built for tourists.

I’d call this a must-read for every American teenager and young adult. And also every middle-aged curmudgeon such as myself.


Ancient Civilizations of North America (Great Courses)

Written and read by Edwin Barnhart

When thinking about ancient North American culture, people typically picture buckskin, teepees, and totem poles. And they also typically picture all of this as a mere backdrop to the stories of Pilgrims and European explorers/conquerors.

But there were thriving cultures in North America back even as much as twenty thousand years ago:

  • People who hunted mammoths, mastodons, and the giant bison antiquas.
  • People who built cities with pyramids, lived in them, and abandoned them… in at least one case, all before the pyramids had been built in Giza.
  • People who studied astronomy and built woodhenges much like the Stonehenge found in the UK.

As someone who lives in North America, this was a fascinating lesson about who lived here before. It was also a lesson about the utter horror of how European contact decimated a massive, thriving civilization: first through disease, and later through greed and terrorism.

Do I recommend this book? Definitely, but only if you want a tremendous amount of detail. I confess that about three-fourths the way through I was wearying of the almost interchangeable detail: “The <____> culture located in the <____> area about <____> years ago used the <____> types of hunting implements and ate <____>. They made <____> and <____> and lasted until around <____> BCE, building houses out of <____>.”

That said, when I finished this book I realized I couldn’t recall as many details as I liked. So I increased the speed of my player, started it all over again, and  am listening to it again, this time taking better notes.


Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Written by Christoff Koch | Read by Walter Dixon

I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book. It purports to tell the story of human consciousness, but what it really does is give an exacting, detailed history of the brain — how it evolved into existence in simple creatures, and then developed into its incredible current state in humans. This book probably even discusses the nature of consciousness… but by the time I got three-quarters of the way through this book I had to fight hard to remain engaged.

There were two big problems. First: I bought a book about consciousness and then was regaled with chapter after chapter after agonizing chapter about brain evolution. Yes, it was very interesting, but that is not why I picked up this book. Second, and most importantly, the narration was the opposite of engaging. It was nearly monotone and required superhuman effort from me to give a damn. So much so that any book narrated by Walter Dixon is one that I will avoid.


Other books I’ve listened to, but haven’t written the review yet:

Artificial You: AI and the Future of Your Mind

Written by Susan Schneider | Read by Katherine Fenton



Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Written and read by Neil deGrasse Tyson



A Short History of Nearly Everything

Written and Read by Bill Bryson



Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Written by Yuval Noah Harari | Read by Derek Perkins



Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes

Written by Nathan H. Lents | Read by L.J. Ganser


Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World

By and read by Michael Pollan


Turning Points in American History (Great Courses)

Written and read by Edward T. O’Donnell



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