Riot Headline The Most Read Books on Goodreads This Week

The Excellent Subtitles of Historical Nonfiction

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Katie McLain

Contributing Editor

Katie's parents never told her "no" when she asked for a book, which was the start of most of her problems. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Lake Forest College and is working towards a master's degree in library science at U of I. She works full time at a public library reference desk in northern IL, specializing in readers’ advisory and general book enthusiasm, and she has a deep-rooted love of all things disturbing, twisted, and terrifying. (She takes enormous pleasure in creeping out her coworkers.) When she's not spending every waking hour at the library, she's at home watching Cubs baseball with her cats and her cardigan collection, and when she's not at home, she's spending too much money on concert tickets. Her hobbies include debating the finer points of Harry Potter canon, hitting people upside the head who haven’t read The Martian, and convincing her boyfriend that she can, in fact, fit more books onto her shelves. Twitter: @kt_librarylady

I can’t resist a catchy title, especially when it’s one of those formulaic yet dramatic subtitles that publishers love to slap onto narrative nonfiction. You know the ones I’m talking about – the ones that use words like “astonishing,” “murder,” “madness,” and “obsession,” like the synopsis to an overly enthusiastic soap opera. Kim Ukura has already shared a few of her favorite “murder and madness” titles, but there are many, many more dramatic titles to be explored.  Here are a few more to add to your list:


sin in the second city karen abbott cover Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul – Karen Abbott

In the early 1900s, Minna and Ada Everleigh opened the infamous Everleigh Club on the south side of Chicago – an upscale, world-famous brothel that sparked a huge culture war between the madams, the politicians, and the Progressive Era reformers of the time. The entire story is infused with the lavish and gritty details of Chicago at the turn of the century, as well as a huge cast of colorful and outrageous characters. If you enjoyed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or Devil in the White City, this is a fantastic title to add to your reading list as well.


The Poisoners HandbookThe Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York – Deborah Blum

Part history, part true crime, part scientific discovery, The Poisoner’s Handbook tells the story of chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander  Gettler, who set out to end an era of undetectable murders and unsolvable crimes. As each of their bizarre cases unfold, we get to see how Norris and Gettler’s research paved the way for modern forensic chemistry and revealed other toxic chemical threats lurking in the city.


spectacle ota benga pamela newkirk coverSpectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga – Pamela Newkirk 

Without a doubt, this is the darkest and most disturbing title on this list. Pamela Newkirk’s sobering research tells the story of a young Congolese man who was brought to America in the early 20th century and displayed as an exhibit at both the St. Louis World’s Fair and the Monkey House at the New York Zoological Gardens. The words “spectacle” and “astonishing” are not used lightly here. Until the publication of this book, Ota Benga’s existence had been virtually erased from American history by the people who exploited him, but Newkirk creates a compelling narrative about this shameful event in American racial and scientific history.


the disappearing spoon sam kean coverThe Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements – Sam Kean

This is the periodic table we should have learned about in science class. Using stories of science, mythology, finance, and the arts, Sam Kean weaves together seemingly-impossible stories about the Periodic Table in this bizarre, yet fascinating scientific history. Why did Gandhi hate iodine? Why is it dangerous to store rare elements in the Congo? And why the hell should we care about molybdenum anyway? The book is broken up into 19 amusing and easily digestible chapters, so it’s a perfect read for those of us who hated science in high school.