Photo by Tom W. Sulcer via Wikimedia Commons

Not many national commemorative months get our attention here at Independent Lens. National Raisin Bread Month ended a few days ago, and no one here so much as gave a toast! Along with National Prune Breakfast Month in January, but we’ll be too hard-pressed to plumb that deeply for meaning.

On the other hand, December is Read a New Book Month (according to some calendars it’s September, but we’re going with December, because it’s a great time to put one of these books on your holiday wish list). This clearly caught our eye because of the many documentary films we love are based on books. We like the idea of cozying up on a winter night with a great book that inspired a favorite documentary.


Here’s a list of seven of our book picks. (Three were the basis of films shown on Independent Lens!) Do you have any favorites to recommend?

1. As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl

book cover image as nature made him

After a horribly botched circumcision left a baby boy without a penis, his parents decided – with the help of medical “authorities” – to consent to sexual reassignment surgery and raise him as a girl. This wonderfully written, heartbreaking, and fascinating book shows that nurture is no match for nature when it comes to gender identity. The book was made into a documentary with a more showy name: Dr. Money and the Boy With No Penis.

2. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story…with Wings

book cover image the wild parrots of telegraph hill

Here’s a case where the film actually inspired the book: Mark Bittner’s tale of finding himself  while bonding with a flock of wild parrots in San Francisco, which has become a New York Times bestseller.

A tidbit some might not know: He and filmmaker Judy Irving, who produced and directed the 2003 documentary that aired on Independent Lens, fell in love during the filming, and have been married since 2006.

3. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

book cover image guns germs and steel

This compelling and groundbreaking study of the past 13,000 years of human history explores the geographical and environmental factors that have influenced the expansion of civilization amongst various nations. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and was made into three intriguing one-hour PBS programs that are big hits amongst educators.

4. Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth

image cover dirt book

Before there was the riveting Independent Lens film, DIRT! The Movie, there was the cult classic, DIRT, the book. The Los Angeles Times calls this look at the soil around us a “gleeful, poetic book…Like the best natural histories, Dirt is a kind of prayer.” It’s an easy, oft-exciting, info-packed read on something that surrounds all of us.

5. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

book cover image half the sky

Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn travel the developing world to report on the oppression of women and girls in their seminal book. The book reveals abject horrors, yet offers hope for real change. It has inspired the documentary Half the Sky by Independent Lens, which follows the lives of inspiring and courageous individuals from 10 different countries.


6. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth
book cover image payback
It takes a writer like poet and novelist Margaret Atwood to make the topic of debt come to life, and roar off the page and into the imagination as it does in Payback. In lesser hands, this could have been cripplingly boring and as torturous as some college econ class, but as The New York Times states: “…the prose of the book, at once commonsensical and counterintuitive, bristles with insight and implication.” Payback, the documentary inspired by the book, was an official selection of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

7. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

book cover image botany of desire

Michael Pollan’s intriguing book on plant/human symbiosis begs the question: Who is really domesticating whom? It may also make you run away screaming from foods such as conventionally grown potatoes. The PBS documentary based on the book is both entertaining and eye-opening.

OK that’s our short list! What would you add to it?