Nonfiction recommendation: Reading to a 92-year old blind lady
April 5, 2014 1:19 PM   Subscribe

Please recommend interesting, well-written and easy-reading nonfiction books

I visit and read to a 92-yo blind lady every week for an hour, but I am having a difficulty choosing the reading material.

She asked me to bring my own books but only nonfiction. She is intelligent and clear-minded, but not highly educated. She has been blind for a long time, and gets tired of materials that are too deep or complicated.

So far the books that we have tried and failed are:

- Walden by Henry David Thoreau: Too deep and serious
- Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov: Too difficult to follow
- Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb: Too old and difficult to follow
- A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton: Too philosophical
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: Too dark
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: This has been the most successful - we finished up to Chapter 2. The anecdotes, interesting ideas and analysis, and easy and compelling narrative style helped. But she got tired of the book by Chapter 3..

I am looking for something
- EASY: written for the general public and readable without much mental concentration
- In parts: not in the style of the whole book in one long, drawn-out theme / story
- Entertaining and interesting
- But still something that is well-written and not "silly" or dumbed down

I am considering
- Short stories, although these are fictions
- Something in the line of Chiken Soup for the Soul..?
- Travelogues
- Newspaper or magazine articles that are simply written and interesting. Maybe some women's magazines Like O Magazine..? May require searching for new materials every week.

She has been living in a care facility for a long time, and she doesn't have family or a lot of friends. She doesn't do most of the things that most people do. I want to read to her something that she will enjoy, but also something that could bring her new and interesting ideas, without being overwhelming.
posted by eisenl to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Bill Bryson's books might be interesting? Notes from a Small Island is engaging. I enjoyed his A Short History of Nearly Everything but that may be too complex in places?
posted by kariebookish at 1:25 PM on April 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

David Sedaris's short tales/memoirs, Naked or Barrel Fever or Me Talk Pretty One Day I can recommend.

Highly entertaining, easy to read and understand, and they will very likely introduce her to new ideas about family, relationships, and craziness.
posted by carsonb at 1:29 PM on April 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is she interested in biographical stuff? I recently read Bob Newhart's autobiography and it was quite engaging.
posted by dotgirl at 1:32 PM on April 5, 2014

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott! It's a memoir of a country vet in rural England in the 1920s. Family-friendly, sometimes funny and sometimes touching, and short story arcs.
posted by workerant at 1:38 PM on April 5, 2014 [20 favorites]

I immediately thought of Bill Bryson. A Walk in the Woods is likely perfect.
posted by pazazygeek at 1:43 PM on April 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

News headlines, if you can find a radio transcript for example?
posted by XMLicious at 1:46 PM on April 5, 2014

If she likes dogs, I recommend You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness

Publisher's description:
Julie Klam was thirty, single, and working as a part-time clerk in an insurance company, unable to meet a man she could spend her life with. And then it happened: she had a dream about a Boston terrier- a dream that practically hit her over the head. The companion she needed was not necessarily the one she'd had in mind. As fate would have it, a dog is exactly the thing that she needed. The New York Times bestselling You Had Me at Woof is the often-hilarious and always charming story of one woman's discovery of all she really needed to learn about life through her relationships with her canine companions. Klam shares how her love for dogs and the lessons she's learned caring for them has shaped her heart. This is a funny, earnest, and emotionally compelling look at the surprises, pleasures, and revelations that happen when you let any mutt, beagle, terrier, or bulldog go charging through your world.

posted by invisible ink at 1:49 PM on April 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Most of Oliver Sacks's books would fit the bill, especially The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Most of his books are collections of essays about interesting cases he has encountered during his career as a neurologist. They are very much geared to the general public, and are fascinating. You could easily read a chapter, which will be mostly self-contained, in an hour.
posted by Adridne at 1:52 PM on April 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

I love All Creatures Great and Small, and the stories are short. They are warm and funny but occasionally a little teary.

Bill Bryson's At Home (might be especially good as the book is broken up into rooms of a home), and One Summer: 1927 are also really good.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:54 PM on April 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

The masters of nonfiction are John McFee and Calvin Trillin. I'm not sure McFee's topics are what you want though. Trillion writes about food and family, and is funny.

Anne Morrow Lindberg's memoirs might be interesting since everyone knows about Lindberg (and the baby).
posted by SemiSalt at 1:58 PM on April 5, 2014

Books of essays may be good. Is she religious? Of a specific ethnic (as in country of origin) background? For example, if she is a white lady from the south, or Jewish, or her family is from eastern Europe, you might look for essays by a writer who matches that background/age span. If she is 92 she was born in 1922; how about writers who lived at roughly the same time and can describe a world she remembers?

Or a movie star memoir...did she have any favorites? Favorite president? She lived through the second world war; did she volunteer, lose a loved one? Certainly she dealt with rationing; maybe essays about life in one of the wars would interest her, and inspire her to share stories.

Try to connect with her in a way that hooks into the rich and very long life she's had.
posted by emjaybee at 1:59 PM on April 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does she like cats? Peter Gethers' trilogy about his cat Norton (here, here, and here) is very entertaining. But if she is very religious, it could be a problem. It's been quite a while since I read the Norton books, but I seem to recall that Peter Gethers is agnostic, and his somewhat negative views on religion come up occasionally in the books. Also (sorry for the spoiler, although it's not surprising), in the end, Norton does pass away. That scene is very poignant, and might be hard for someone very elderly.

But having said that, I enjoyed the series very much, and it might work for your friend. At least, the first book in the trilogy might be worth a try.
posted by merejane at 2:03 PM on April 5, 2014

I'd try Grapes of Wrath. She was 10 in 1932, so I bet she can relate and tell some real stories. Although it is not a short story, it meets the other 3 of your 4 criteria. My father is a little younger than she is, but he found the story to be moving and accurate. I was a little surprised at how much he liked the story ("liked" it not quite the right word, but hopefully you understand what I mean).

Thank you for reading to her.
posted by Houstonian at 2:13 PM on April 5, 2014

Mark Twain's Roughing It or Life on the Mississippi comes to mind. Travelogue-type-vignettes, reflective and easy to follow.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:15 PM on April 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:19 PM on April 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

"T. Rex and the Crater of Doom" by Walter Alvarez.

It's about the process by which Walter and his father Luis developed the asteroid-impact theory for the extinction of the dinosaurs. He's an excellent writer and the story is easy to read.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:39 PM on April 5, 2014

I came here to recommend James Herriot but I see I'm late.

Also Jeanette Walls' Half Broke Horses. Good read, I think it fits the criteria, and an elderly lady might enjoy to the protagonist's experiences as "a frontier teacher, a rancher, a rodeo rider, a poker player, and bootlegger." Based on the life of the author's grandmother, who was born in 1901 in a dugout in Texas.
posted by evilmomlady at 2:40 PM on April 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

What about the New Yorker magazine? Lots of lively non-fiction including the shorter pieces in Talk of the Town and featuring several of the writers listed above.

^ Also ^ Sandra Day O'Connor's autobiography, Lazy B: Growing up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:59 PM on April 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Maybe some Mary Roach?
posted by oh really at 3:01 PM on April 5, 2014

The Silent World by jacques cousteau...all about the development of SCUBA gear and the earliest diving experiments that he undertook

The Bloodstream by Isaac Asimov...all about what goes on in your blood...maybe a little dated, but I don't think much of the information in it has been proven wrong per se, just they've probably made many more discoveries since it was written...still a really good book though.
posted by sexyrobot at 3:39 PM on April 5, 2014

What about adventures? Those keep one's attention without being too dark (usually). Into Thin Air? Non-fiction from Outside Magazine?
posted by salvia at 3:47 PM on April 5, 2014

Nthing Bill Bryson. Oliver Sacks too. Some other possibilities: Sarah Vowell (specifically Take the Cannoli) and Margaret Atwood (Second Words or Writing with Intent).
posted by xenization at 4:00 PM on April 5, 2014

Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis comes to mind, if she's at all interested in history.

The World Without Us is probably one of the most thought-provoking books I've read in a long time.

Occasionally hilarious wildcard: what about one of the Straight Dope books?

If fiction is at all an option, I can't recommend The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books highly enough for warm-fuzzy (and good) reading.
posted by jquinby at 4:05 PM on April 5, 2014

The various Best American series of essays (science, journalism, etc.) seem like they'd be a good fit.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:19 PM on April 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Growing Up, by Russell Baker is the author's autobiography and his mother's biography. I first heard it read by Garrison Keillor on public radio about 1983. It's lovely. Easy to read and interesting.
posted by SLC Mom at 4:25 PM on April 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Local history (or history of where she's from if not there)?

I've heard a lot of great things about Stephen King's On Writing, from people who haven't read any of his books in over a decade.
posted by K.P. at 5:25 PM on April 5, 2014

Why not read her the longform articles from The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, etc? Just because she only likes non-fiction books for a handful of chapters doesn't mean they were a failure, it just means that she (like many readers) doesn't have the desire to read (or hear) 300 pages on a topic they only have a passing interest in.

If not the magazines themselves, ocherdraco's suggestion of the Best American series is in a similar vein. Heck, you could print out a smattering of recent FPPs and get a lot of appropriate material.
posted by telegraph at 5:44 PM on April 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think Laurie Colwin's memoir Home Cooking, short essays about food, cooking, and family, would be great. If she likes it, there is a second collection called More Home Cooking. Colwin's writing is lovely, funny, and accessible.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:09 PM on April 5, 2014

Stephen Jay Gould's article collections are really fun (except the first, "Ever Since Darwin", which he himself hated later in life).

Try, for example, "The Flamingo's Smile".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:52 PM on April 5, 2014

Beryl Markham - West With the Night.

Other biographies or autobiographies? The biography of the Wright brothers, The Bishop's Boys is very engaging as is Cyril Aydon's biography of Charles Darwin.
posted by X4ster at 8:04 PM on April 5, 2014

If she liked Outliers and Gladwell's style, try "What the Dog Saw" which is a collection of his short pieces for the New Yorker. It has better variety than Outliers, which I enjoy but is repetitive.

It includes his profile of Ron Popeil, The Pitchman, which I recommend. In fact, many of his New Yorker essays, including many also found in the book, are available at his online archive.
posted by themanwho at 8:35 PM on April 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Twain's Life on the Mississippi is contagiously fun to read.

I also really enjoyed David Grann's The Lost City of Z, a true story about a doomed expedition to find "El Dorado" in the Amazon. It reads like an adventure novel, very captivating.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:08 PM on April 5, 2014

I've been listening to Agatha Christie's Autobiography on audiobook and I think it might suit. It's very cosy and calming, but she's such a great writer she can make the simplest anecdote entertaining. She's not a 'fancy' writer, just a real pro. Lots of interesting vivid detail of life at the turn of the last century. It's a string of anecdotes so you can zone out and zone back in at leisure.
posted by Erasmouse at 5:33 AM on April 6, 2014

I can definitely back up those who have suggested Bryson and Herriot.

Along similar lines to James Herriot's stories of veterinary life are Harry Cole's stories of police life. They're standalone anecdotes of nice digestible length and a lot of them are hilariously funny.

My only recommendation would be to read ahead so as to omit the few unsuitable stories. Harry was a beat cop in London for thirty years. So a few of the stories are racy or dark, but there's enough light-hearted stuff to make the purchase worthwhile.
posted by the latin mouse at 10:20 AM on April 6, 2014

Bill Bryson's new book, One Summer: America, 1927, could be awesome given her age.
posted by dgeiser13 at 9:52 PM on April 6, 2014

Check The Best American... series - annual editions of essays re a variety of subjects, plus short fiction.
posted by she's not there at 1:49 AM on April 7, 2014

How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, by Umberto Eco. Significantly easier to understand than most of his other books, and at times hilariously funny. The subject matters are all over the place, so you can easily read one essay, put it away for a month, go back for another essay, etc.
posted by snakeling at 3:08 AM on April 7, 2014

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krause Rosenthal might fit the bill. Observations of Rosenthal's life in alphebetic, bit-sized pieces.
posted by stampsgal at 1:48 PM on May 12, 2014

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