Non-fiction and The Chaos Machine

I’ve been reading more non-fiction for a work book club. It seems to fall roughly into a few categories: polemic, self-help/business, and history. I’ve been wondering how to rank and compare the different kinds.

The Chaos Machine by Max Fisher has a compelling narrative about publicly unaccountable algorithms created by Silicon Valley corporations maximizing human interactions for revenue, despite harms created from those interactions. Google/Youtube and Facebook are mostly singled out for their failure to stop harm. It’s very similar to Stolen Focus, which calls this corporate behavior “surveillance capitalism”. Both books fit squarely in what I call polemic non-fiction.

Another popular non-fiction sub-genre is self-help/business: Switch, Atomic Habits, Deep Work, Innovator’s Dilemma. Like the polemic non-fiction they share a similar sequence of anecdotes. Switch, Atomic Habits and Deep Work even repeat the same anecdotes making it hard for me to distinguish between them at times. They share a lot of DNA with the polemic non-fiction. I think the main difference between them is the polemic is about convincing you to change the world, and the self-help is about changing yourself.

On the other side there is the more documentary non-fiction. Salt: A World History or Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption are more of a linear history of events without overarching themes being put in place to explain how all the events moved forward according to a specific plan. But these non-fiction books never sell as well as the other books I mentioned. They don’t really have characters or a goal of persuasion. But are these truer to the spirit of non-fiction?

How do I evaluate a popular non-fiction book on the Goodreads scale? I gave Atomic Habits 5 stars because I thought it was very tight and while not very deep it feels like the apotheosis of the self-help non-fiction genre. It’s hard to imagine any other self-help non-fiction improving on what Atomic Habits did.

But maybe I should reconsider all persuasion non-fiction since, like a lot of popular genres, there just isn’t much room to be truly great or truly awful. The need to reach broadly comes with limits to what it can do.