Non fictionSunday Salon

A reader’s bad habit

Seeing that comment in  Simon Heffer’s column in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph column, I nodded in agreement and also felt it was a bit of an obvious comment. Who but a fool (or maybe people with compulsive buying habits) would fork out to buy something they wouldn’t use?

Unless they are someone who buys a book with very good intentions of reading it even though there is that voice in their head muttering “don’t kid yourself you’ll get round to reading this.” Someone like me in fact when the transaction involves the purchase of non fiction books.

Which is why I have a large stack of them. Unread. Not even opened.

Sure I have a large pile of unread fiction titles but I do pick some out and read them (doing pretty well on that front so far this year in fact).

But the non fiction titles? Forget it.

Some date from at least 10 years ago when I thought I should learn more about the sustainability issue than I could glean from newspapers. Others were bought in a vain attempt to keep up to date with the latest business theories (I did manage three chapters of Jim Collins’ Good to Great and about the same with The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen). But some books about the political changes in China remain undigested beyond about page 3.

The only non fiction titles I’ve read in recent years have been either book related like the World Guide to Literature  or craft related. I’ve not read a history book in easily 20 years. And yet I still buy non fiction. Last year I bought:


Zola victorians

Both seemed eminently readable – I scanned them in the shop to make sure they were not top heavy factual tomes.

Have I read them? Er, no.

Will I do so soon? Er, not likely

And yet what did I do just last week? Why of course, I went and bought some more non fiction. Namely The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer and Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind ( oh the irony of that purchase).

Most likely they will still be sitting in the same place on the shelf this time next year.

Don’t ask my why I do this. I have no idea. But I know its a bad habit I need to get out of.



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

51 thoughts on “A reader’s bad habit

  • I particularly like your ironic purchase! Like so many booklovers I’m not always entirely sure what I own when choosing new books – I’m currently into poison as a means of murder and picked up a new book and then realised I’d got one sitting on the bookshelf, unread!

    • I’ve made the mistake too many times now of buying something only to find a few months later during a tidy up that i already have it. but my list of books to read is too large to make it practical to take with me when I go shopping

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  • Well part of you intends to read the nonfiction books you buy so that counts for something! Personally I love nonfiction and every year seem to read more of it so that my nonfiction to fiction ratio has crept up to be near 50/50. I can second Claire on Empathy Exams being excellent 🙂

      • A few but not many. I generally only “count” gardening books if there is significantly more text the photos and they are more than “how-to”

  • I’m trying (and failing) to read more non-fiction too. I’ve thought about adding them to my audiobook list instead of reading paperbacks… Have you tried this? Was it any better (or worse)?

    • I did try it with one of the Jim Collins books, I think it was Built to last. it was an ok reading experience but I found it was hard to concentrate on the book and the driving at the same time.

  • I’ve been reading more non-fiction over the past couple of years. It depends on whether the prose is journalistic or academic – I find the former is far more readable. I highly recommend In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (true crime classic), H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (biography), Do No Harm by Henry Marsh (memoirs by a brain surgeon) and Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (outlines the phone hacking scandal).

    • The Capote is in a class of its own. the one about the phone hacking scandal could be interesting. I have Five Days at Memorial about the hospital in southern USA during one of the hurricanes and how the doctors dealt with ethical issues of who to save. Not got further than the first few chapters but I sense it will be an emotional experience

  • Maybe there’s a nonfiction book that will help 😉 I know what you mean though. When I did my big book sweep before I moved this past September overwhelmingly it was nonfiction I got rid of. I only kept a few either Jane Austen related or autographed.

    • now you are not going to send me down the path of that woman who is getting everyone super organised are you? you know the one (her name is something like Kondo) who maintains you should look at everything in your house and if you can’t say I love it, then get rid of it.

      • Haahaa nah. I mean I enjoyed her book and thought it made sense, but I also took it with a grain of salt.

        • Some of it made sense but then I heard her talking about her ritual for when she gets back home after work. She puts everything in its place and says thank you to each item. She has to be loopy…

  • I tend to read non-fiction in a different way to fiction. Confession forthcoming – I tend to bound around in them – open them at random to find something interesting and then sort of go back and forth. I almost always do that with biography because I assume, probably wrongly, that the whole who their parents and grandparents were is going to bore me so I jump to some episode that interests me and often read the beginning at the very end. In fact I have a complete aversion to reading non-fiction from A-B. I’m not sure if this helps or not!

    • Thats an unusual approach but heck, if it works, why not. The early chapters I also find usually to be rather dull. It’s as if they are clearing their throat ready for the real stuff to come….

  • I love the cover for Zola and the Victorians!
    I am the same with non-fiction. I get all enthused about some new biography. But I find that if I don’t read it during the initial rush of enthusiasm, it gets neglected, buried and forgotten.

    • Know the feeling – sometimes I look along the shelf and think. What possessed me to buy that….

  • I have the best laid plans for the books I buy…LOL. The nonfiction books I buy are memoirs, and I usually get around to them. Sometimes fairly quickly, as I did with the Gloria Steinem book. But I also have some rather thick ones (hence the problem) that have been sitting around for years. Now I use them on my nightstands to elevate other things I put there, like mugs for my pens.

    • Oh well at least they are being useful and so earning their keep in the house as it were

  • I have wanted to up my nonfiction reading this year since I realized I read only 1-2 books that qualified last year and they were both memoirs. Not that memoirs are bad, but I don’t consider that “nonfiction” in the sense of learning about science or history or…? However, I completed My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem today and it was definitely a huge learning experience for me. I respect that woman so much and I am so jealous of all she has learned in her lifetime. Though I’m grateful she chose to share it all with the rest of us! I had borrowed this book from the library, but I am going to purchase it, it will definitely serve as a great reread in the future. Of course, it is not only nonfiction books that I have in my house that have been here for “years,” but also fiction. However, that obsession with purchasing books and bringing more and more into my house without having read what I already owned I blame totally on the 4 1/2 years I worked at Borders as a bookseller. I I could purchase a book for $.50 – $1.00, I did it, period! Now I have had to really cut back on purchasing books because I literally have no more room! YOU ARE NOT ALONE!! I am planning to create a nonfiction page on my blog to hopefully encourage me to actually read some of these super-interesting books I own! 🙂

    • I’d have bought the whole story at those prices….. No wonder they went bust if that was the kind of discount they gave their staff. Memoirs are not my thing either .. they usually start off so far back and dwell way too much on far distant branches of the family tree. The one exception was Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl. Now that girl can certainly tell a story

      • I’ll have to check out Country Girl. And I really do enjoy memoirs, but want to expand back into a bit more science, etc. Oh, and please don’t misunderstand. The books I purchased that cheaply were the bargain books on which I still received the employee discount of 30% even though they were already priced so cheaply! 🙂 Trust me, we received 30% off the full price. We typically used the same coupons our customers used for full price purchases! 🙂

  • Oh my goodness. I do this as well. I think because once a decade (or so) I do actually read a non-fiction book (other than memoirs) that I really enjoy and then I go on a little spree. Which reminds me that apart from the rare exceptions, I’m not a non-fiction reader. And then the cycle begins again. I can think of a handful of books that have fitted this in the last 20 years (seriously) – The Tipping Point by Mslcolm Gladwell; Just My Type (a book about the history of Fonts) and The Empathy Exams (which was one of the best books I read last year). For those three examples, I would have at least 30 non-fiction books on my shelves that I’ve started but not finished, or simply never opened.

    • Tipping Point was one of my rare incursions too. I did enjoy this so tried his next one which wasnt all that great. And also Freakonomics which I couldnt get into

      • I read his second one and thought it was good but must admit that his next (What the Dog Saw??) has been sitting on my Kindle for years!

  • I definitely buy books I intend to read but have still not gotten to. I also buy books I’ve read and loved so much I want a copy to keep even though I don’t anticipate re-reading them.

  • I do the same thing. But, I do intend to read them. Someday… 🙂

  • I’m guilty of buying books I don’t intend to read. Sometimes because they are pretty. For example I have a well-worn copy of Jane Eyre, but that didn’t stop me buying a nice bound hardcover one. If I want to read Jane Eyre again, I’d probably go for the worn one with the notes and such, but the hardcover looks great on my shelf! Or I have Galileo’s Dialogue. It has not been translated into modern prose so it’s a bloody tough read, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever read it, but it is nice to have.
    20 years is a long time to not read history! I often do it to supplement my fiction reading. My reading of the Russian classics would have been very different without first reading Figes’ Natasha’s Dance. All of the Indian fiction I am reading has been greatly helped by reading up on Indian history.

    • Ive no doubt that I would benefit from a bit of reading around the subject – like with the book I just finished reading which is focused on the Nepalese insurrection. I have no clue about that event but it might have given me a further dimension to the book

  • I am exactly the same (obviously!) but particularly with non fiction. I have great intentions and then never feel in the mood!

    • Ah yes the mood factor is something to contend with. I think for me its more a case though that I do my reading in bed and if Im sleepy i can’t concentrate on anything too demanding

  • Jonathan

    Here’s a tip: get them from the library, renew a few times then return them unread – it’s a lot cheaper. 🙂

    • Ha, ha, Jonathan. I’ll remember that.

    • Thats a smart plan. My library system doesn’t do too well on the kind of non fiction I might want to read – they seem more keen to spend money on bios of celebs

  • I used to be like with nonfiction titles until I made a really good friend who had a masters in creative nonfiction from the US and she opened my eyes to a whole genre that was in a class of its own, non fiction that read more like a novel, something that has been slow to infiltrate British literature, perhaps because it has only recently begun to be taught, whereas it has been developing in the US since the 1970’s.

    • That sounds intriguing Claire! I read a book last year that probably falls into this category (The Empathy Exams) and did wonder at the time why I found it to be so, so good compared to other non-fiction and essay collections. What would your top picks be?

      • I actually asked my friend to make me a list and I wrote about it in a little local magazine, which I no longer can find, but remember that it was Lee Gutkind who founded the creative nonfiction program and MFA degree in the genre at the University of Pittsburgh in the 70’s and Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story is a text often used for those learning to improve the art.

        Some of the authors mentioned that I have read are Terry Tempest Williams, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Flanery O’Connor, Eileen Gilchrist, Jill Ker Conway, Kathleen Jamie, some write about life, some about nature, and some combine the two, oh yes Rebecca Solnit is another, I listened to her speak before reading The Faraway Nearby which was great. There is something about them that makes them immensely more readable and almost unputdownable, than nonfiction that hasn’t had that training and practice in the art of personal or natural narrative. You know it when you’ve found one, because you read it like you would a novel.

        • Thank you for that detailed reply! I’ll check some of those out.

        • more names i don’t know – more names to go and buy maybe

      • The Empathy Exams sounds decidedly odd ( I had to go and look it up… just in case I was missing something special)

        • Empathy Exams is fascinating. I read it last year but still thinking about many aspects of it.

    • I’d love to know some of the books that fell into that category Claire. Do you remember any of the titles?

      • I just checked back on email and found the original list my friend gave me:

        An incomplete list of meaty, great nonfiction reads that will stay with you for years beyond the last page:
        Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory
        Shimmering, beautifully rendered memoir.
        Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
        Moving, honest, funny account of one woman’s transformative journey through divorce, up-ending life-changes, and three countries.
        Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays
        The father of the modern essay, Montaigne is a genuine kick.
        James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
        Essays on life in Harlem, movies, and Americans abroad.
        Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments
        Singularly fascinating treatment of one writer’s complex relationship with her mother.
        Anne LaMott, Bird by Bird
        Technically a book about the writing process, these interconnected mini-essays are so appealing — thoughtful and inspiring, grounding and hilarious. (Also see Traveling Mercies and Operating Instructions – moms will especially love the latter).
        Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
        With her characteristically lively, graceful prose, novelist and critic Woolf was also a forerunner of the modern essay. Woolf ruminates not only on what the woman writer needs – an income, space of her own, time to write – but also imaginatively speaks to larger concerns about society, one’s inner life, and the creative process. Wow!
        Ivan Doig, This House of Sky
        Set in Montana, USA, this evocative treasure is a testament to the power of place, memory, and the complications of love and family.
        Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon.
        Lovely and interesting essays on a writer’s young family’s years in their beloved Paris.
        Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.
        A poignant meditation on the cycles of life, nature, love, joy, catastrophe, family ties (and birds).
        Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
        A tough, beautiful exploration of grief by a master essayist, author of nonfiction classics Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album.
        Sarah Turnbull, Almost French.
        Entertaining and thoughtful account of an Australian journalist’s first years in Paris with her French boyfriend and later husband.
        Phillip Lopate (ed.), The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present.
        A now-classic sampling of canonical literary nonfiction – from Seneca and St. Augustine to Lamb, Orwell, Didion and more.
        Jill Ker Conway, The Road from Coorain.
        Memoir of a woman’s intellectual and emotional development in mid-century Australia.
        Peter Hessler, River Town.
        Evocative (true) story detailing two fascinating years teaching in China along the Yangtze (before it jumped its banks).

        • Wow, this is a remarkably kind act Claire to share this list. Lots of people on here I have never heard of – another excuse to go shopping? Or maybe just the library

        • I was amazed too when it was first shared it with me and began to explore some of the authors, now I have no trouble with nonfiction authors, but I steer away from those that lack this more literary narrative, that pulls the reader in and keeps us reading.

    • My little whiles have a habit of turning into long stretches


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