Sunday Salon: Nonfiction for Reading

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a couple of non-successes reading nonfiction. (I call them non-successes, rather than failures, because the books weren’t terrible and I did get something out of them, but I didn’t really enjoy them.) Both books (Guarding the Golden Door and Empires of the Word [review to come]) had several qualities in common, and that got me thinking about what I enjoy—and don’t—about reading nonfiction.

For years and years, I hardly ever read nonfiction. I almost always associated it with textbooks—dry, boring recitations of facts. I might pick up an occasional book on a topic of interest, but the nonfiction section of the library or bookstore wasn’t a regular haunt. When I read nonfiction, it was for information, not for the pleasure of reading.

It wasn’t until I took a class in creative nonfiction that I discovered that nonfiction can be read for sheer pleasure. I learned that there are truly wonderful nonfiction writers out there who can make any topic interesting (I’m not into science, but I like David Quammen, for example), and I found that nonfiction can be as elegantly crafted as the best fiction. For instance, true crime books may be a dime a dozen, but In Cold Blood is a masterpiece of literature. Anybody with a bit of notoriety can get a (ghost-written) memoir published, but the ones that get passed around and read years later (The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, Lucky by Alice Sebold) are the ones that have excellent writing behind the story.

So, yes, nonfiction can be every bit as entertaining and elegant as fiction. But that doesn’t mean that it’s all readable and interesting. Some nonfiction is still every bit as dry as those textbooks I remember from school. The two books I recently read both suffered from that problem. There was lots of information, and much of it was interesting, but it was too much. There wasn’t a story or a strong point of view to keep me reading—just facts and more facts. They were books to study, but not books to read. There’s nothing wrong with books that are more for study and reference, but that’s usually not what I’m looking for when I pick up a nonfiction book to read. I usually read nonfiction in much the same way that I read a novel. There’s a place for more textbook-like nonfiction that you study instead of read, but it’s not something I’m looking for these days.

With all that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of qualities that I think make for nonfiction that is more for reading than for studying. Not all of these qualities need to apply to every book (I can think of exceptions to them all), but these are a few common traits I’ve found in nonfiction that I’ve enjoyed:

  • The author is a writer. Wait, aren’t all authors by definition writers? Technically, yes, I suppose, but some authors are writing their books mostly because they are authorities on the subject, not because they are skilled wordsmiths. They may be able to do an adequate job conveying information, but they won’t necessarily be able to draw in people who aren’t automatically fascinated by the topic. That’s why I sometimes gravitate toward books by journalists or writers who aren’t authorities on the topic. They seem to be better able to communicate with laypeople.
  • The book has a clear, narrow focus. The two books that didn’t work for me this week were both ambitious surveys of big topics. These kinds of books are tricky because there is so much information to convey. In theory, breadth seems like a good thing because it gives readers a fuller, more complete picture of the topic, but shallowness seems like a common result. For me, depth is preferable—and more readable.
  • The book makes an argument, has a point of view. This is a tricky one, because it can so easily turn into the author having an axe to grind. However, I think the idea of making an argument is especially important to books that share a lot of information. It’s why Guns, Germs, and Steel worked for me—Diamond was making an argument. Readers don’t have to agree with the author’s argument, but the argument gives readers something to think about, something to weigh against all those facts.
  • There’s a story. A story gives readers something to care about, people to root for. And the story can’t just be an account of events told in order; otherwise, any history book would be a story. There needs to be some sort of narrative drive—a feeling of suspense, of unpredictability. Even in history books where the basic outcome is known, there are stories within the story that aren’t so well-known. These can keep the reader going.

Those are just a few thoughts to start with. What do you look for in nonfiction? Do you tend to read your nonfiction or study it? Do you see a difference?

Notes from a Reading Life

Lots of books on my Books Read this week because of the Readathon

Books Read

  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 2 by M.T. Anderson (audio). Abandoned.
  • Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler.
  • Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson (Readathon).
  • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (Readathon).
  • Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburō Ōe (Readathon).
  • The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa (Readathon).

Currently Reading

  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (reread)
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton (church book club)
  • Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero (audio)

New Acquisitions

  • None

On My Radar

  • Purge by Sofi Okansen. A novel about a widow and the disheveled young woman who appears in her garden. Both have mysterious histories bound up in the history of their Estonian home. Reviewed at Reading Matters
  • On the Beach by Nevil Shute. A 1957 novel about the aftermath of a nuclear war. Reviewed by Novel Insights, Savidge Reads, and Chasing Bawa
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32 Responses to Sunday Salon: Nonfiction for Reading

  1. Jenny says:

    Your list of characteristics looks like a list I might make of nonfiction books that I BUY. I am not a big buyer of books (used book sales apart), and I buy nonfiction much less frequently than fiction. But if an author (Randy Shilts in And the Band Played On is a perfect example) can do a nonfiction book that feels like a story, I’m more likely to want to REread it. And rereading potential is something I consider pretty heavily when judging books I read.

    • Teresa says:

      You know, now that I think about it, I hardly have any nonfiction on my keeper shelves, except for reference books. (I’m extremely severe about what stays on my keeper shelves—mostly just books I want to reread.)

  2. When non fiction is done well, it can be every bit as readable as fiction. The trick for me is just finding non fiction books that I like!

  3. gaskella says:

    I don’t think I could read a non-fiction book about a subject that doesn’t engage me. I think your criteria are mostly spot on – I would only take issue with the second slightly as I occasionally appreciate a more generalist overview of a subject new to me.
    I do like a good Hollywood or acting memoir/biography too, but they do need to be more than just a CV of productions, they need to get under their subject’s skin.
    I love popular science books too. This is an area for me, which really needs to be written by writers who can make the complexities of the subject comprehensible!

    • Teresa says:

      It’s funny. I like the *idea* of a generalist approach, but I think they’re really tough to get right. They’re either too shallow to be satisfying or they try to cover too much ground. A good general overview on the right topic certainly has appeal, but I find them so risky.

      If you like popular science, have you tried David Quammen. He’s a terrific writer. I’ve only read one of his books (Monster of God–about predatory animals), but Jenny has read two or three and is a big fan.

  4. kimbofo says:

    I love non-fiction, as long as it is “literary” by which I mean it uses the devices of the novel to tell a true story. In Cold Blood is a prime example.

    I recently read Nothing to Envy about what it is like to live in North Korea and it is an absolutely fascinating read, because the author tells it through the eyes of six people who defected and have amazing real-life stories to tell. I plan on reviewing it on my blog in the next week or so, so do watch out for it.

    Oh, and thanks for the link to my review of Purge.

    • Teresa says:

      My favorite nonfiction tends to be of the literary variety. In fact that creative nonfiction class I mentioned had the alternate title of “Literary Journalism.” That idea of using novelistic techniques to tell true stories was our focus. (And In Cold Blood was the subject of my class project.)

      I’ll keep an eye out for that review.

  5. Christy says:

    I too gravitate toward non-fiction that has been written by journalists. I am not that interested in celebrity memoirs or biographies of famous people, but I do like memoirs in the vein of The Glass Castle, like you. I generally nix the self-help type books.

    There is a lot of great non-fiction out there and you can learn a lot without it seeming textbook-like. I like to get ‘caught up’ in the narrative non-fiction.

    However, I am willing to give time and patience to non-fiction books that don’t read like novels. It has to be about a topic I am interested in, however. For instance, I read David Carroll’s Swampwalker’s Journal this year. It took me a while, and I didn’t like all the parts, but I am drawn to environmental books, and it was worth the slower pace.

    • Teresa says:

      I sometimes like the idea of those books that require slower reads–more like study. But when I was taking graduate classes, I couldn’t really work them into my reading schedule as I had textbooks to read for class. Now that I’m on grad school hiatus, I’m glad not to be studying. For the right topic, I might give such a book a try again… someday.

  6. Richard says:

    I’m not an anti-nonfiction person, Teresa, perhaps in part because I’ve always been interested in history and was a history concentrator in college. So it’s alway sort of weird for me to wrap my head around the concept that so many in the blog world have an issue with nonfiction. I feel like a minority! To each his/her own, of course, but I guess I have a tendency to look for the same things in nonfiction that I do in fiction. An “interesting” topic/theme, an arresting presentation, etc. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is as profound and insightful in its psychology as any novel I’ve ever read, and both he and the Roman historian Tacitus have in-your-face styles that are worth reading as “literature for literature’s sake” in my book. Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, about Scott’s failed expedition to Antarctica, is another nonfiction fave that’s just incredibly artfully written and soulful. I’m not a war novel buff, but I’d wager Michael Herr’s Dispatches, high voltage reporting on the Vietnam War, is more intense and provocative than any novel could be on the subject. Etc., etc. Will spare you more of my “list,” ha ha, but I confess to reading a higher percentage of fiction since taking up blogging than I ever did pre-blogging (not sure what to make of that other than maybe making up for lost time). Anyway, thanks for the questions at the end of your post and good luck finding some nonfiction that’s just as juicy as your fictional favorites!

    • Teresa says:

      Oh yes, I know there’s so much good nonfiction out there, but the trick is finding it (not unlike the trick with fiction, really). That class I mentioned really helped me see that nonfiction can be as exciting as fiction. In Cold Blood is, of course, the classic example, but it’s just one of many.

  7. A narrow focus is, among all those elements you brought up, absolutely key. It’s what ties a book, regardless of genre, together, and it’s always what’s wrong with the poor nonfiction I’ve picked up.

    • Teresa says:

      I think that tendency to cover too much is a really common mistake in nonfiction. It’s just so hard to do well. It can be, I’m sure, but it’s so risky.

  8. Jenny says:

    I’m about to review a nonfiction book where one of my complaints — I think — is that it was written by a journalist and not a historian! I agree that the ability to tell a great story is crucial, but in my view you can’t subsume the facts to the story. This one drove me a little nuts, even though the history was really interesting. I’ll wait on the rest for my review! :)

    • Teresa says:

      I wouldn’t suggest subsuming facts to the story, and a good journalist would certainly strive to avoid doing that. I think that the advantage that a journalist might have over an expert is that the journalist would have an idea of what background knowledge the general reader would have and which facts would seem important and of interest. That’s not to say all journalists write well, or that one has to be a journalist to write good nonfiction. There are always exceptions.

      • Jenny says:

        Oh, and by the way, I’ve noticed that we as a blogging pair regularly read almost exactly one-fourth as much nonfiction as fiction. It’s weird how we keep up that ratio. I definitely read way more nonfiction now than I used to (used to be none.)

  9. litlove says:

    As someone trying to write creative non-fiction at present this is all very helpful to me! The big key for me reading it is whether the writing is interesting enough to get me to the very end of the book. It’s often easy to abandon non-fiction three quarters of the way through because it feels like you know so much what is coming. A good story, as you say, helps a lot with that.

  10. amymckie says:

    Your points make sense – it’s definitely easier to know what works for you and what doesn’t. I too love a good writer, but I also love just people who know a subject… though it can be more hit and miss!

  11. Kathleen says:

    I used to read more non-fiction than fiction and I do get your point about reading vs. studying. I suppose I am a bit of a geek because I enjoy even the dryer non-fiction reads.

    • Teresa says:

      There’s certainly a place for those “study” books. I know I’ve read some in the past and found them helpful. I’m just not in a place right now where that’s what I’m wanting to read. Perhaps I will be again someday, though.

  12. rebeccareid says:

    I think you just described why the biography I read recently just wasn’t interesting. It was full of facts, it was blah. Oh, I learned a lot, but in the end the book itself did nothing for me.

  13. Erin says:

    That’s an interesting list, and I agree with your points. I tend to read memoirs by people with some degree of writing skill (The Glass Castle, Animal Vegetable Miracle, Sweater Quest). It’s very hard for me to find other nonfiction that I end up enjoying, though it can be done! Maybe I should look at what nonfiction I’ve enjoyed and then come up with a list of characteristics I seem to like.

    • Teresa says:

      Writer memoirs are generally my favorite memoirs, even if the actual writer isn’t one I’m all that interested in. An interesting life may or may not make for an interesting book.

  14. chasing bawa says:

    Interesting post! Although I don’t read much non-fiction, I’m always planning to! I’ve got The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale on my TBR which is supposed to be well written and fascinating and I read Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson a couple of years ago which was brilliant. Thanks for the link for On the Beach by the way!

  15. Audrey says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more! Some non-fiction reads just don’t include the elements you so well pointed out and as a result they run flat. When you are seeking information you want to connect with the book somehow. I did feel this way when I read, “The Sobering Truth,” by Jeff Herten, M.D. The author was so candid about his own experiences with alcohol abuse, which only enhanced the medical facts that were pretty stunning. When you find a great non-fiction read like this it’s a rare delight.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve enjoyed several memoirs like that, which connected the author’s own experiences with more objective facts about the subject.

      • Audrey says:

        Yes, those are the most profound. I also like how Dr. Herten is so humble and doesn’t allow his position as a doctor to stop him from sharing his testimony. I think we relate better to authors who have been through similar experiences instead of just writing about the subject.

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