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