Virtual Escapism: A Year of Non-Fiction has the Power to Take You Away

Escapism (əˈskāpˌizəm/) noun “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine”

There are times in all of our lives when an escape is sought, or even needed! For some people, those times come around rather frequently. Given the opportunity, this leads to climbing aboard a cruise boat, a cross-country train or a 747 jet airplane. Escape, discovery and adventure get rolled into one, and travel allows them to explore places near and far, both domestic and international. There’s a rush that comes with travel, or perhaps instead there’s a sense of calm. The need to literally escape, to get out on the road, may arise out of a desire for self-discovery and personal growth.

Other people may not have the opportunity to physically escape from everyday reality and routine, or at least not with the frequency that they desire. A sort of virtual escapism may come to the rescue in these cases, diverting the mind in a purely imaginative or entertaining way. How is this achieved? One route,which many people choose, is to escape into a magazine, a good book, or perhaps an entertaining blog post.

In my case, I’ve been lucky enough to find ways to escape both literally and figuratively.

When I travel by plane, especially on longer international flights, I’m afforded quality time to read for pleasure, to reflect on places I’ve been , and to write about my dreams for future travel in my journal. On most occasions I opt out of the opportunity to use the airline’s Wifi, free or otherwise. Perhaps I’m a little “Old School”, but there are so few times in our busy lives when we aren’t expected to be immediately responsive to emails, and texts, and phone calls, and social media posts. Give me a 2 hour break from all that, and I’ll take it!

I have free access to books, both fiction and nonfiction, through local bookstores, the metropolitan library system, online ordering & Little Free Libraries scattered throughout my neighborhood.  I try not to take this incredible fact for granted. When I’m finished with a book I try to “upcycle” it, by dropping it off at another Little Free Library, selling it back to the book store, or passing it along to an interested friend, so that others benefit from access to the book.

Being “finished” with a book means many things. Sometimes it means that I’ve read it, gained all that I can (or will) gain from it, and have no intention of reading it again. Because I’m confident that I will never flip through its pages again, it seems a bit like hoarding to hold onto the text. Being “finished” with a book might otherwise mean that I’ve lost interest, whether this happens on p. 20, p. 150 or p. 298, just a chapter or so from the end. If I’m really inspired by a book, I may pass it along even though there’s a (slim) chance that I’ll take the time to read it again. I put it back into circulation, into the hands of a kindred spirit, so it’s sure to be read.

These days I read mostly non-fiction, and have spent the last year co-hosting a non-fiction book club. I want to learn. I want to grow. I want to discover something new, about the subject of the book or about myself!  I want to expose myself to more of what’s out there in the world, and non-fiction seems like a great place to do that.

So, I invite you to travel with me, to escape into my world of non-fiction! In the past 12 months, “Kat & Dawn’s 2016 Book Club” has read and discussed 11 books, a collection of research publications, memoirs, and self-improvement books. Take some time to discover where I’ve traveled in the past year. Check out the links I’ve shared, to videos, websites and discussions of these varied books. I don’t mean to “play favorites”, but I did have a few favorites along the way, and I’ll let you know which those were! Come along on this journey, and we’ll rise strong, create some big magic, find peace, and possibly discover ourselves Miles From Nowhere!


Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution by Brene Brown

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Brene Brown is well known for her work as a researcher / storyteller, and as one of Oprah’s chosen circle of self-improvement authors. In an animated video by RSA Shorts: Espresso for the Mind, Idea Rocket Animation Services brings her theories on Empathy and Vulnerability to life.

Her latest book, Rising Strong, includes a lot of personal information about Brown’s own life experiences, and her own attempts to push through difficult times, and come out on top, strong, in the end. Her work for this book builds on previous publications, but can be read independently.

If you aren’t familiar with Brown’s work, I highly recommend getting to know her on her websiteBrene Brown:  Or, if you’re short on time or attention span, watch her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability”:


Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Readers and movie goers alike are familiar with Elizabeth Gilbert’s work Eat, Pray, Love, which Julia Roberts brought to life on screen. It’s Gilbert’s own story. In Big Magic, Gilbert brings to life the creative process itself. She speaks to creative people of all sorts, discussing ways to use creativity to move, work and live beyond fear. The book club is made up of an amazing, diverse group of friends. I can easily say that each member is creative in his or her own way, and this book was a popular one.

Gilbert’s website describes the book: “Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work, embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.”

In addition to her writing, Gilbert also produces a podcast called “Magic Lessons”, where she fleshes out the concepts introduced in her book. Check it out here:


Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away by Eric G. Wilson

Next the book club tried to get their collective head the rather academic, and intellectually heavy, book Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck. This one was my pick. It was not the most popular book of the year. It did address the topic of escapism, examining the various ways we escape everyday reality into the macabre, the creepy crawly, the morbid, and the underbelly of life.

Drawing on all areas of pop culture (books, music, films, visual art, live performance, museums. . . ), this book explores the side of human nature that is drawn to the darker side of things. Horror films, memoirs of serial killers, and museums full of oddities like body parts and murder weapons are the focus of Wilson’s studies. He is a lover of the macabre himself, and has studied the topic at length. He explains our fascination with things like the many spinoffs of CSI TV shows, and invites readers along on an investigation of things that take them outside of their comfort zone, their safe space.

2012 Lecture by Professor Wilson:


Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh

This book, this meditation, was my introduction to the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, and I’m happy to have been introduced to his work. “Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, revered around the world for his powerful teachings and bestselling writings on mindfulness and peace…His key teaching is that, through mindfulness, we can learn to live happily in the present moment—the only way to truly develop peace, both in one’s self and in the world.”

Slowing down, appreciating small amazements, and remembering to focus on your breath are explored from many different angles. Having 5 minutes to become mindful, perhaps in line at the airport, can change your entire outlook on your day.

In conjunction with this month’s book I formed a Mindfulness, Yoga and Meditation group. We discussed what motivates us to be mindful, and shared information about yoga and meditation resources around the city (classes, workshops, meetings, etc.). I enlisted the help of Learning Lab Consulting, to put together a mindfulness workshop for members of the book club – see the link below to visit the Learning Lab Consulting’s blog here on WordPress.

Poetry by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Plum Village, Mindfulness Practice Centre:

Learning Lab Consulting:


Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality by Alan C. Logan N. D.

Similarities in the mindset and outlook of the book club members, who are creative, outdoorsy, and physically active, were brought to light with the reading of this book. Your Brain on Nature made a case for shutting off our electronic devices, heading out on a hike, and breathing in as much fresh air as possible. Logan’s book is dominated by research studies. He examines the measurable, healing impact of being in a hospital room with windows that face a park, rather than having a view of a brick wall or a dumpster. He discusses how we set up our homes, and other personal spaces, and the benefits of city planning that maximizes outdoor spaces.

This was, admittedly, a tough read for some members of the club, who would rather be riding a bike, paddling a kayak, or indulging in a lunchtime walk than reading about such thinks. Great information was presented, but the majority of book club members, or at least those who came together to discuss the book, were already in agreement with its basic principles. I considered canceling the meeting and heading outdoors as a group, but we had bottles of wine and an impressive spread of food to occupy us.

Natural Geographic: “This is Your Brain on Nature”:


Imagine: How Creativity Works (audio) by Jonah Lehrer

I prefer to read printed books, with the distinct feel and smell of ink on paper, rather than listen to audio books or read them on my first-generation Nook. It certainly helps pass the time on a 4 – 5 hour commute, however, to be engaged with a book on CD in your car’s stereo. This is how I “read” Imagine, and this made it possible for a historically slow reader(read that as deliberate, intentional) to finish the book in just a couple of days.

Given the subject matter, the nature of creativity, it was interesting to tackle the book through a different approach. I’ve never been able to listen to fiction in an audio format, because I lose track of the plot and am constantly rewinding the chapter. Non-fiction is a different story. I enjoy digesting the work in smaller chunks, and engaging a different (auditory) part of the brain. The book includes a series of case studies, looking at the creative drive behind innovations like the Post-It note, the startling success of Pixar, and the process that led to the creation of the “I Love NY” campaign. Lighthearted and upbeat, Imagine is an easy “read”.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Hands down, this was the favorite book of the year for the book club, as a group. Not only did it generate lively discussion, but it took us into a world that was unfamiliar, yet resonated deeply with most of the group. Author Rebecca Skloot took on the challenging task of uncovering the real story of Henrietta Lacks, the researchers who took her cancer cells without her permission, and the extensive research that was made possible by her “contribution” to medical science.

The book travels back in time, to visit Henrietta at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, and then back to the present, to examine the lives of her children and grandchildren, trying to cope with the legacy of her famous cells. Even after her death, brought about by the very aggressive, relentless cancer that brought her to the hospital, her cells live on.

Tackling the issues of race relations, economic gaps, and consent to scientific research, Skloot writes about “Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo”. The book is driven by a quest to determine if, or to what extent, Henrietta and her family were taken advantage of. It’s a fascinating look at a clash between scientific advancement and basic human rights.

Rebecca Skloot: Journalist, Teacher, and Author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:


Miles from Nowhere: a Round-the-World Bicycle Adventure by Barbara Savage

We definitely covered the most miles in this 1985 bicycle adventure memoir. It chronicles a journey, by bike, through all types of extreme weather, across all types of “road” surfaces. The author and her husband push their bodies to the limit, and ride on despite lost sleep, injury, and perpetual soreness. (There’s also the lack of toilets and presence of Montezuma’s Revenge to consider.) More than that, the book explores the strengths and limits of relationships, tested by pedaling around the world, experiencing diverse cultures and, for the most part, not speaking the local language.

In 1970 Cat Stevens released the song “Miles From Nowhere”. In it he writes: “Miles from nowhere, Not a soul in sight. Oh yeah, but it’s alright. I have my freedom; I can make my own rules. Oh yeah, the ones that I choose.”

Savage’s book illustrates an ultimate escape from the “real world”, as their journey lasted 2 years. The couple prepares financially for the trip, but they were not experienced riders, and have to learn quickly how to overcome physical and emotional challenges.


In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

These are Michael Pollan’s overarching “Rules for Eating”.

At this point in the year, cracking the spine on our 9th book, I realized that many of the titles we’d been drawn to are authored by very prolific writers who have embraced other media (websites, videos, podcasts, and documentaries) to promote the themes that drive their research and writing. Michael Pollan is a prime example of this.

This book, along with his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, offers empirical research and detailed theories, based on this research, about our modern relationship with food. Pollan has also published practical guides to eating well, and produced documentaries that make his concepts real. He pulls readers back into the real world, explaining how his concepts apply to their everyday life, to every decision they make about where, what and how to prepare and consume our food.

PBS Documentary:

Cooked: a new, 4-Part Documentary Series on Netflix:

3 Simple Rules for Eating – Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.:


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

I was inspired by this book to head outdoors, to really look at nature up close, in the cold chill of Thanksgiving weekend. In November, “Accidental Wanderlust” posted Memoir of a Fallen Tree: a Stroll Along Salt Creek Prompts Reflection on Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl”:

After you’ve revisited the images captured on that November hike, and read about the connections to Jahren’s work, take a deeper look into her work on these sites:

NPR: ‘Lab Girl’: An Homage To The Wonders Of All Things Green:

Jahren Laboratory:

Lab Girl: YouTube video:


H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

The final book of the year was another memoir. A few months into the year I’d learned that one particular book club member hadn’t quite realized that the group would only read non-fiction, and perhaps wondered when we would get to a nice piece of fiction. Sticking with the storytelling approach of memoir seemed like a nice compromise, one that would keep everyone reading.

H is for Hawk is a powerful story of the sudden, devastating loss of a parent, and the methods that might help an adult child cope with this loss.

Helen Macdonald is an experienced falconer, and the book is a blend of memoir and nature writing. She details her efforts to come to terms with her father’s death by training a bird that has a reputation as a fierce predator – the goshawk. The book is also an examination of the life and times (and struggles) of early 1900s writer T.H. White, who made a fumbling and uninformed attempt to train a goshawk. Macdonald weaves these themes together into one narrative, and the reader puts the book down with a richer understanding of how external challenges can be a reflection of the struggles within.

What’s Next?

The book list for 2017 is being worked out, with contributions from other members, to diversify the content. There are obvious trends in the 2016 list, but sometimes it’s good to revisit a place you’ve been before, to dig a little deeper. This year I escaped into these books while on a train from Chicago to Portland, hopping a plane to Cuba, and sitting behind the wheel, headed to that state up north – I can’t say the name, but any Ohio State fan will understand. I’m excited to see what adventures the next 12 months will bring.

Join me on my next adventure,

~ Kat



  1. This was very informative and I’m going to read 1 or 2. Henrietta’s story sounds amazing, and since I’ve been interested in the brain lately maybe the brain and nature book.
    Thanks for bringing these to light.
    Blog On!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s