Should non fiction read like fiction?
Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel?
It’s week 4 of Non Fiction November 2018 and Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction has set that thought-provoking question.
My first — instinctive — answer was no. If I want fiction, then I’ll read a novel; if I want something factual, I’ll pick up a non fiction book. But ne’er the twain shall meet.
But when I began thinking about it more I realised that there are some principles that apply regardless of whether its fiction or non fiction. Some aspects of novel writing I do in fact like to see in my non fiction reading.
First and foremost I expect any non fiction book to exhibit writing to a high quality standard. Non fiction authors, just as their fictional counterparts do, need to appreciate the value of the full stop. Too many academic writers stuff their text with so many multi clause sentences that the only way to discover the meaning is to pick each one apart. I don’t expect, or want, any book to be in text that is so simple a five year old would have no trouble reading it, but neither do I want to have to work super hard to understand what is in front of my eyes.
Even more critical: I don’t want to be bombarded with facts. No matter how knowledgeable the author, being confronted with paragraph after paragraph stuffed with dates, names and facts makes for very dry and tedious reading. I want my facts mixed with interpretation, analysis and perspective.
Fortunately, recent years have provided evidence that there are non fiction writers who have understood those requirements. Understood them so well in fact that their books have become best sellers rather than being confined to dusty academic libraries.
Here are some of my favourite examples.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
I’m reading this at the moment. It’s an astonishing piece of work that explains clearly to a lay person the effects of insufficient sleep. I thought a bad night’s sleep just meant I felt washed out and unable to think clearly. It turns out that regular sleep deprivation makes me more susceptible to dementia, cancer and diabetes, more likely to have a car accident and less successful at keeping my weight under control. I’m hoping that it’s not too late for me to undo some of that damage.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
I rarely read anything about nature but this was a fascinating book about the author’s relationship with the goshawk she bought following her father’s death. The process of training Mabel, helps Helen Macdonald through the process of grieving for her father. This book became a best seller and won several awards including Costa Book of the Year in 2014
The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
I had never read a political autobiography until Mandela’s book was published in 1994. It was astonishing. I knew I would learn about his political ideas and the cause for which he spent decades in prison. But I also learned that the man viewed as a saviour of his country, had many faults. Mandela doesn’t shy away from showing how he was naive and headstrong in his youth and how he neglected his wife and children. In the final chapters of the book, Mandela — by then President of his country — looked to the future and his belief that the struggle against apartheid would continue.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Bryson’s books about the idiosyncrasies of Britain and the British are a delight. In A Walk in the Woods he returns to his homeland of America and describes his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail. He and his walking companion however are decidedly
ill-prepared for such an endeavour; they’re carrying far too much equipment and food so the first leg of the journey is an ordeal. In between humorous episodes and some rather dangerous moments, Bryson reflects on the history of the trail, the ecology of the areas through which the trail passes – and on life in general.
I’m sure there are plenty of other examples besides these of well written and compelling non fiction books. Do let me know what books you would put on your list.
37 thoughts on “Should non fiction read like fiction?”
Lewis Thomas wrote some wonderful essays that are part of collections, Medusa and the snail, the lives of a cell, the fragile species. Isaac Asimov has some really interesting non-fiction, essays on collections like the relativity of wrong or guides and books like a history of scientific words And their meaning. I liked your article, don’t hear much from the non fiction section these days.
I never knew Asimov wrote non fiction. You’re right – there are not many blog posts about non fiction which is why is was such a good idea to have that non fiction month
H is For Hawk and A Walk in The Woods are two of my favourite books, and the sort of thing I take with me if going to sit in a waiting room for a long time or be away overnight. Perfect for dipping. With regards to the larger question, I have sought out well-researched historical fiction with regards to historical topics I’m studying as I find it easier to relate to/remember who people are and how things happened if there’s a human, narrative element. Especially huge, complex subjects like the French Revolution.
I’m with you in seeing the human dimension of history far more interesting than dates and names of battles or plots
Oh my! I think I really need to take a look at Why We Sleep. Thank you!
I would say it’s an eye opener in terms of the insight it gives about sleep
I also loved H is for Hawk! One of the most interesting and well-written books I’ve ever read…that also just happens to be nonfiction is The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. Also found The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey to be fascinating. She has released at least two more since this one and I would definitely read anything written by her. Memoirs I’ve recently read and greatly enjoyed: Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot (sparse yet intense–she is Native American) and Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (powerful). I’ve been fortunate enough to meet both of these women. If you ever have the opportunity to do so, it was such a treat!
I’m interested in that Quest for Gold because of the context in which those games took place. Wasn’t it the one where Jesse Owens ran?
The only one of these I’ve read is the Bill Bryson but the others are all on my TBR. If you enjoy books about rest/sleep, you might also like Rest by Alex Soonjung-Kim Pang, although it’s not a self-help thing, more of a look-at-what-all-these-famous-creative-people produced in just a few hours work/day thing. Still, I found the principles of interest (and all the writerish detail fascinating – who worked a lot, who rested)!
I decided many years ago I was never going to be a CEO of a company or organisation or a senior politician because the most successful of them seem to exist on far less sleep than I can ever contemplate….:)
Anything written by American journo Susan Orlean. The Orchid Thief was outstanding. Her recent title is a book about Libraries. Very high on my Want to Read List.
There seems to be a bit of a wave of books about libraries/librarians. I hadn’t heard of this one though so will check it out
Why We Sleep and H is For Hawk are on my want to read list. Both sound totally engrossing.
Usually I don’t pick up books that are talked about as much as both of these did but I’m glad I put my prejudices to one side on these occasions
Two. The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh and The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight by Jimmy Breslin. Both authors were influential in my fiction writings.
I was curious about The Onion Field – the title struck me as unusual – so had to go and find out what it’s all about. I hadn’t heard of the kidnapping but it seems like a good topic for a book
And movie. The book was much more compelling, especially for a fellow cop.
I hadn’t realised you were in the police in a former life Mike. I guess that means you don’t have to worry too much about doing extensive research to ensure authenticity in your own writing….
Ha! No, research is still a HUGE part of my writing.
I agree with you. Having read many American Presidential biographies over the past few years, Robert A Caro stands out for making his extremely long 4 volumes and counting biography of Lyndon B Johnson exciting and gripping while educating me about the American government and political process. I am about to read Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. Stay tuned to see how I think he did. A Walk in the Woods was a seminal book for me that got me back to visiting National Parks in America.
Bryson would be delighted to hear you say that his book was the catalyst for you to visit the parks. I’ve been to a few of the big ones (Yosemite, Bryce, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley) but there are so many more to enjoy….
This topic has made me think about the continuum between pure information and storytelling/imagination. Stories give shape and meaning to formless experience; we crave them as much as food. To only be fed dry information would be like eating stones. The true art of the nonfiction writer is to find what kind and degree of storytelling suits his or her material, without straying too far from the factual basis.
I loved H Is for Hawk and A Walk in the Woods as well. Some other well written and compelling nonfiction I recommend: Being Mortal, Just Mercy, The Age of Wonder, The Sixth Extinction, The Unwinding, The Boys in the Boat.
that’s an insightful comment Lory. I suspect the reason we like stories is that we are wired into them from a very early age
I think there has to be a balance, really. I like my non-fiction to be readable for sure, but I depending on the type of non-fiction I like a bit of back up – notes and sources and the like. Books that don’t have the latter can lose me a bit…
True, there is a balance required. Having notes and sources available is great if you want to pursue some further reading on your own. I’m fine with them being in the back of the book (prefer that to having them as footnotes on the pages)
Really thoughtful take on this topic! I agree with you that it makes for difficult and not necessarily enjoyable reading when a page is stuffed with facts and dates and figures, it’s just not something I can absorb and appreciate. I think your point about there needing to be quality is such a good one, regardless of subject or how knowledgeable you are. And this: “Non fiction authors, just as their fictional counterparts do, need to appreciate the value of the full stop.” could not possibly agree more!
I love the books you chose to illustrate this! I hadn’t heard of Why We Sleep but that’s an excellent example if it’s scientific but written very readably. I might check that one out. I’ve read other Bill Bryson and really liked him but haven’t gotten to A Walk in the Woods yet, I need to. I’ve heard a lot of praise for H is for Hawk and Long Walk to Freedom is a must-read for sure. Wonderfully eclectic list here!
Thanks for the comments – so glad to know we are on the same wavelength about the importance of full stops…….
Having just had the pleasure of listening to him in public I know I must read Brian Keenan’s “An Evil Cradling”. His humility and readiness to forgive his captors is wonderful to behold.
Oh yes that would be a great one to add to the list. It reminded me about another book too about the kidnapping of the journalist John McCarthy. I think it was called Some Other Rainbow
I’ve read three of the books in your post and agree that they are all well written and fascinating without bombarding the reader with facts. I particularly loved Bill Bryson’s book.
The one I haven’t read is Mandela’s Autobiography , although I’ve had a copy of it for years. I started it and now I can’t remember why I stopped reading it – my bookmark is at page 122 – so your post has encouraged me to pick it up and start it again! 🙂
Im reassured to know I am not the only one to suddenly stop reading a book without knowing clearly why ….I have loads of books with marks in half way through
I haven’t read much non fiction that isn’t biographical. I did read The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman that I enjoyed. So much to know about their habits, etc. I agree with your writing on how non fiction should be presented. Dry dates put me to sleep.
I like connection between the name of your blog and the fact you enjoyed The Genius of Birds. Very appropriate….
“The Silk Roads” by Peter Frankopan is the most compelling non-fiction book I’ve read in years, covering the history of Central Asia. It has more information on the competition between Buddhism, paganism, and Christianity than any other book I’ve read before, but mostly it follows the money, focusing on the areas were the wealthiest, what they did with that wealth, and how many people they were willing to kill or enslave to get that wealth.
“Guns, Germs, and Steel,” by Jared Diamond was a masterpiece of logic, using science to explain one of the toughest of history questions: why did civilization arise in some places sooner than others. Short answer: the easier it was to domestic local plants and animals, the sooner people settled down for farming and increased their population.
The long considered champion of masterful prose by a historian has been Johan Huizinga’s “Autumn of the Middle Ages,” a beautiful description of how the Middle Age’s just ran out of intellectual steam, reaching the limits of their premises.
Three very meaty books. I’m drawn to that one about the Middle Ages – a period I need to discover more about
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West is the most literary work of non-fiction I’ve ever read, such that I think of it more as a novel than a history/memoir. Such a style is not useful for every subject, but it worked well there.
I’ve not come across those but you’ve awakened my curiousity ….