Books, Musings

Non-Fiction is Your Friend

Nobody who asks me for a book recommendation wants me to suggest a non-fiction book. It’s an unwritten rule of recommending books, that the person asking wants a work of fiction.

Readers want a basic book with a good story, obviously. But they often want one that’s not too tough to read, and preferably not too long. The request for a book recommendation isn’t a request for a challenging read, rather it is for an entertaining read. I read a great deal of non-fiction and would like to convince people that non-fiction can be every bit as entertaining and absorbing as any work of fiction.

I base my theory on one simple argument: A bad book is a bad book, therefore, a good book is a good book. That’s it. Fiction or non-fiction, there are poorly written books, terrible plots/structure and uncompelling characters or events. Non-fiction may be more prone to being a bit technical, but both fiction or non-fiction can be dry, wearisome, or boring. Both genres can definitely wade off into sleep inducing areas. If you want to find tedious books, no genre can claim innocence.

Non-fiction has almost as vast a number of sub-genres as does fiction, so there is something for everyone. You can choose from memoirs, self-help, current events, true crime, and commentary, to name a few. If you’re interested in someone or something, there’s a book about it. A great way to start with non-fiction is to read a memoir or biography about your favorite movie star or athlete. Some of these are really good. From there you can branch out.

If you read only fiction, consider a non-fiction title for your next book. Here are eight easy tips for the non non-fiction reader to try it out.

1. Don’t let the size of a book scare you away. Before you don’t pick up a book because it’s too thick, remember a lot of non-fiction books come with footnotes/endnotes/appendixes which count as pages, but not necessarily pages you have to read. I’ve definitely picked up books with over 100 pages in added material.

2. Memoirs are a great introduction to the real world.

a. As noted, a memoir about someone you’re familiar should be a painless way to get started. If you find the memoir, “okay” but not great, try someone else.

b. Find a memoir about a person’s who’s written about something you’re going through. When my Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer and for a couple months after his death, I picked up a couple of books written by very eloquent writers that gave me some good insight. Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking was a good one. The book covers the year after her husband’s unexpected death and how she dealt with it. Not be callous, but if you’ve got a problem or a medical condition, or are dealing with tough stuff in your own life, someone has probably already written a book about a similar situation.

i. Btw, this is why I read both fiction and non-fiction, because I could mix Joan Didion and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl…heavy and light, if not in subject matter, at least in tone.

c. Finding memoirs doesn’t have to be deep. If you like to cook, find a memoir from a chef (Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is a classic or try Julia and Julie, by Julie Powell). If you like to travel, or sing, or bird watch, or whatever, you’ll find a memoir.

d. Find any memoir that has “my year of” or “my year in” in the title or subtitle, especially if the thing the author spent a year doing catches your fancy. By focusing on just one year, the book is automatically structured to keep from being overwhelming.

3. Can’t get enough of crime on the news? Choose from like a million true crime books. Start with a crime you know, that work your way through the lurid catalog of human behavior.

4. Can’t get enough of the news on the news? Choose from hundreds of current events books for a deeper dive into stories you think might be interesting. I guarantee, if you read books about current events, the way you listen to or read your daily news will change.

5. Find a topic you like…find a book about it. Google your topic + books and behold the power and breadth of non-fiction.

6. Find a thin book about a subject you can’t believe there’s a book about it. I unexpectedly found, picked up, read, and enjoyed Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson.* I never expected to find, much less read or enjoy a book about feathers, but there you have it. A good writer with passion for his or her subject makes all the difference in the world. I’ve read pretty good books about screws, pigeons, beer, flowers, horse breeding, monarch butterflies, traffic, taxidermy…and many more. These aren’t science books, they are stories about these things and their place in the world. All surprising, informative, and interesting.

7. Let the subtitle be your guide. Subtitles are actually put there to sell you the book and will give you a lot of insight as to where the book is going to take you.

I’ve saved the easiest entry to non-fiction for last.

8. Self-help books, including how-to books, and management books count as non-fiction. Sometimes these books are “assigned” to us by well-meaning friends and bosses, but the rules of non-fiction apply. Find something you want to do or learn, and read the book.

Don’t be scared of non-fiction. Let the occasional true story live peaceably along side of your fiction reading.

*In fact, I just looked up the page count and am surprised it clocks in at 363 in hardcover. I remember whizzing through the book, written with infectious enthusiasm by an ornithologist. So I went to the library and picked it up. It has 80 pages of endnotes.

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