When it comes to his preferred reading, “Nonfiction’s my game,” says Bob Balaban, who has had roles in films as wide-ranging as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Gosford Park, Best in Show, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and in television series such as The Politician. “I’m particularly happy when I’m reading about anything scientific you don’t have to go to graduate school to understand; any book about history as long as it contains a character I can wrap my skittering mind around; and animals in trouble, as long as they’re not too cuddly,” he says. “Or wearing a hat.” Here, Balaban, who is set to appear in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (in theaters this summer), recommends his favorite nonfiction books.
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
At 37, the neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a near-deadly stroke on the left side of her brain. She recovered unimpaired after an eight-year period of intense therapy and wrote a book detailing the process from beginning to end. Her painstaking account stands as a rare scientific record of this kind of terrifying hemorrhagic attack.
The nail-bitingly suspenseful life-or-death interchange Taylor depicts between the right and left sides of her brain (“Despite the overwhelming presence of the engulfing bliss of my right mind, I fought desperately to hold on to whatever conscious connections I still retained in my left mind”) is an unforgettable tour de force of restrained urgency. It’s funny to call a book about a massive stroke a great read, but it is. Taylor writes in a brisk, no-nonsense, “just the facts, ma’am” style that instantly pulls you into her story and keeps you poised at the edge of your chair or bed or wherever you happen to do your reading. She never sues for your affection or your sympathy. By book’s end you will have given her both.
The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, by Tom Reiss
This book chronicles the advent of Bolshevism and the rising tide of anti-Semitism leading up to World Wars I and II while simultaneously relating the life story of the pseudonymously named Kurban Said, the mysterious “Orientalist” referred to in the book’s title. Said was the author of the enormously popular adventure-romance saga Ali and Nino, first published in Vienna in 1937.
Until Reiss set out to do his five years of research on Said, almost nothing of any substance was known about the elusive novelist’s life. He had published books as both Kurban Said and Essad Bey, so even his name was a mystery. Reiss’s research brings him to Said’s deathbed notebooks and a crumbling ruin of a house in Positano, Italy. Said had scribbled his entire fantastic and otherwise undocumented life in the notebooks.
Wait, there’s more: It turns out the notebooks aren’t written by Kurban Said. They’re written by Lev Nussimbaum, a.k.a. Kurban Said, a.k.a. Essad Bey—the son of one of the richest Jews in Azerbaijan. Bey lived a life as picaresque as the novels he created. Of course the man had pseudonyms; a book by a Jewish author could not have been published under a real name while the Nazis were still in power. By strategically embedding chapters from Said’s microscopically specific diaries throughout his sprawling political history, Reiss creates a startlingly effective personal lens through which to view the first half of the 20th century. The Orientalist is a hair-raising adventure, a memoir, and a history lesson; it’s a miracle of serendipity the book ever got written in the first place.
Never Cry Wolf: The Amazing True Story of Life Among Arctic Wolves, by Farley Mowat
Never Cry Wolf chronicles the author’s adventures as a young naturalist in the late 1940s, when he traveled to the wilds of northern Canada to corroborate the popular myth that all wolves are evil and should be destroyed. He discovers that they’re not and that they shouldn’t be.
“Why this book?” you might ask. First of all, Mowat is a wonderful and instinctive storyteller. He’s effortlessly funny and endlessly informative about animals, nature, and his own personal journey, which you wouldn’t necessarily think would be all that compelling. But in Mowat’s extremely resourceful hands, it’s practically a thriller—he provides a seminal and powerful rebuke to an environmentally disastrous program of mass extinction that’s still going on more than 70 years after it began, without ever wagging so much as a finger at the reader. Then there’s the guilty pleasure of knowing you’re reading a book written by a man whose name is actually Farley Mowat. The book holds a prominent place on my night table, and there isn’t a morning that goes by that I don’t look at the book, say the author’s name to myself, and smile.