Pretentiousness by Dan Fox | When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi | The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I've been reading a lot of non-fiction lately and I've been enjoying it so much. I always felt non-fiction wouldn't be something I'd enjoy reading when trying to relax but it turns out I was wrong! I've been looking forward to delving into yet another non-fiction book at weekends. I have topics I love but I also keep an eye out for interesting subjects which may catch my interest. 

The three books I've selected below are all rather short but definitely pack a punch. Pretentiousness is a fantastic essay on the art of pretending and why it matters; When Breath Becomes Air is a stunning and beautifully written memoir from a doctor suffering from cancer; and The Argonauts is a book that blends essay and memoir about gender, motherhood and identity.


Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox

Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016
Bought the ebook edition

What is pretentiousness? Why are we afraid of it? And more controversially: why is it vital to a thriving culture? This book will argue that pretentiousness is the engine oil of culture; that it has always been an essential lubricant in the development of the arts, from the most wildly successful pop music and fashion through to the most recondite avenues of literature and the visual arts. Demonstrating how pretentiousness forms part of daily life, this book aims to ignite a lively debate about public discourse around the arts, advocating critical imagination and open-mindedness over knee-jerk accusations of elitism or simple fear of the new and the different. Drawing on the author's own experiences growing up and working at the more radical edges of the arts, this book is a timely defence of pretentiousness as a necessity for innovation and diversity in our culture.


I kept seeing this book popping up in my Twitter feed and I couldn't quite understand why someone would ever think pretentiousness mattered. After reading the author's compelling case, I see I had fallen in the prejudiced idea of seeing pretentiousness as a very one-sided negative trait. Dan Fox goes through the history of the word itself and how it's been used in the past and the negative connotation which crept up relatively recently.

No art would ever be thought-provoking, original and unusual if people didn't have a tendency to pretend. Everything would feel very same-y and safe. Pretending to be a bit more/better/different than you are is a way for a person to reach further than what they would/could otherwise have done. This really made me question my automatic reaction to some art that feels a bit too "out there".

One aspect of the book that has really been fascinating to read - and which I'd never really thought about before - is the part about people pretending, not to be better than they are, but pretending to be   like everyone else - "just an ordinary person". I think it resonates particularly with all the discussions regarding diversity in the Arts with everyone pointing the finger to the problematic "them" and acting as if they themselves are not part of the problem.

This book also introduced me to Fitzcarraldo editions who have a fantastic list - I already have picked up Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett and Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley to read.


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Published by Bodley Head, 2016
Thanks to Vintage for the finished copy!

What makes a virtuous and meaningful life? Paul Kalanithi believed that the answer lay in medicine’s most demanding specialization, neurosurgery. Here are patients at their life’s most critical moment. Here he worked in the most critical place for human identity, the brain. What is it like to do that every day; and what happens when life is catastrophically interrupted?

When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable reflection on the practice of medicine and the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

With a foreword by Dr Abraham Verghese and an epilogue by the authors wife, Lucy.


I love reading books about death and it seems there have been so many published this year. This one is spectacular, it is written by a doctor and a writer who wrote this while dying of cancer. It is powerful and beautifully written and in some parts took my breath away.

It blends memoir with incredible reflections on medicine, death and healing. I can't recommend it highly enough.


The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Published by Melville House, 2016
Bought the ebook edition

An intrepid voyage out to the frontiers of the latest thinking about love, language, and family.

A timely and genre-bending memoir that offers fresh and fierce reflections on motherhood, desire, identity and feminism.

At the centre of The Argonauts is the love story between Maggie Nelson and the artist Harry Dodge, who is fluidly gendered. As Nelson undergoes the transformations of pregnancy, she explores the challenges and complexities of mothering and queer family making. 


This is a fascinating book about Maggie Nelson's reflections on life, femininity, love, motherhood and language while also talking about her life and her relationship with trans artist Harry Dodge who describes himself as a "debonair butch on T". 

The writing in the book is incredibly compelling and the beauty of the writing combined with the breadth of topics made for a fantastic read. The author includes quotes from a bunch of theorists about feminism, parenting, gender studies etc to try to make sense of the reality she lives in. I like the idea that knowledge and awareness are fluid concepts that evolve over time, rather than a fixed knowing state of being that remains unchanged. 

The title comes from the Argonauts who, despite replacing sections of their ship time and time again, still called it the Argo. It feels like a lovely metaphor about life and identity. I loved this book and I also loved the fact that it goes beyond the idea of family, motherhood and femininity as cis and heteronormative concepts.


Let me know if you've read any fantastic non-fiction lately!!