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Wow! (How my brief gush about PotE transformed into a manifesto for non-fic reading)

February 16, 2008

I just finished Pillars of the Earth, and I already have one of the most effusive reviews I’ve ever written swirling around my mind (do other people review like that?  As I’m reading, various sentences/themes will pop up, and by the end of the book, the review is usually just sitting in my head waiting to be typed out).  But, I’m going to give it a bit more time to settle.  (Perhaps there’ll be a post later today as well, since that’ll help me catch up the days that I’ve missed blogging).

In the mean time, I thought I’d talk a little more about non-fiction, since in rereading that meme below, I realise I must have been a bit grumpier than I thought I was!  (I have an illness that, when it flares up, loves to deprive me of sleep, so that’s certainly a part of it)  And, my present love of non-fiction is the culmination of an arduous, year-long journey, which didn’t really come out much in that meme.  And, I’d love to see further discussion of it around the blogosphere, since as CJ Hill pointed out, it’s not talked about much.  And, I’m trying to see how many sentences I can begin with the same word in one paragraph. ;)

So, flashback to January 1st, 2007.  Little newbie blogger Eva has decided that one of her reading resolutions ought to be to keep her fic:nonfic ratio at 3:2.  This is actually what it was at for 2006, when I only read around 100 books, so the  goal didn’t seem unrealistic.  (Little did I know that somehow, I’d read crazy amounts of fiction in 2007, which severely affected the ratio, lol)  I made a bit of an effort that winter to seek out great non-fiction: I got together a big long list and made a personal challenge so I could have the satisfaction of striking through titles.  That worked for awhile, but by August I realised I was nowhere near my ratio goal.  So I set a new rule (and personal challenge) for myself, that I figured would at least keep me at 3:1: for the rest of the year I had to read seven non-fic books a month (later, I changed it to six plus The Economist, which at about 100 pgs/wk equaled a 400 pg book every month).  At first, it was incredibly painful.  I would put it all of until the end of the month, and then race through books feeling guilty.  But soon, I realised something: although I always expected the non-fiction to be ‘burdensome’ somehow (because it’s not like people ever really procrastinate on pleasures, lol), I usually ended up enjoying the books a lot.  By December, it was becoming natural for me to reach for a non-fic book, and I often had several from different genres going at once, just like my fiction reading.

And by this year, I’ve pretty much developed the non-fic habit.  Out of the thirty-four books I’ve read, eleven have been non-fic (and I’m sooo close to finishing The Looming Tower).  Not only that, I no longer think of non-fic as a chore: instead, I look forward to the books and savour them as a I read them. 

This post has turned into such an exercise of navel-gazing, lol.  But here’s what I learned from four-five months of effort, which I’m sharing in case it helps other people’s quest for great non-fic (note the desperate attempt to make this seem less egocentric): I enjoy the kind of non-fiction that comes with fifty to a hundred pages of endnotes/bibliographies/further reading suggestions/etc.  The works, in my experience, are deeper, the authors are more invested, and I feel like I’m getting something out of my reading (I have a tendency to rage at flimsily-supported nonfiction).  That’s one of my litmus tests for grabbing non-fic out of the library, actually, and it works.  (Except, of course, for memoirs.)  The more specific the book’s nominal focus, the more interesting it’s likely to be (this kind of focus allows me to become a mini-expert in some field, and the author usually puts it in larger context as well)-for example, I never would have expected to love a book all about Patrick Henry, a newly founded Evangelical private college.  But it was just fascinating!  So be willing to look for books discussing topics outside of your usual interest.  I really like reading books about contemporary American society written by journalists (and, to be even more specific, the Washington Post writers and I are BFF-I’ve read works by three of them and loved them all).  For me, there is nothing more satisfying that curling up with an advanced/technical-ish book on my non-fic ‘expertise’ (international relations), so while exploring new topics, don’t forget to ground yourself in your favourite field! I also think that there should be more non-fic reading challenges out there, but that’s just because I enjoy challenges so much!  (And on that note, I’m working on one centered around international relations, but don’t worry-it won’t be a for awhile)  Reading great non-fiction critically reminds me of having one-on-one conversations with some of my favourite professors: regardless of whether I agree with the author, s/he expands my views and sharpens my personal beliefs.  Really, and at the risk of sounding corny, I’ve begun to look upon my non-fic reading as way to continue the ‘liberal arts’ philosophy throughout my life; by examining various viewpoints in a certain field, I can get the equivalent of at least an introductory course to a wide range of topics at a price that can’t be beat!  Finally, it is possible to incorporate great works of non-fic into your life, although it may take awhile and be difficult at the beginning.  I realise that my way probably won’t work for a lot of people (I’m highly motivated by lists, quotas, concrete goals like that), but for those who want to try out some more non-fic, check out the second of my “Lists of 2007” page, entitled “Page Turning Non-Fiction.”

What about all of you?  Do you wish you read more non-fic?  Do you ever set ‘rules’ for yourself to try to make that happen?  Have some favourite authors or books to recommend?  Which reminded me-any suggestions for essayists?  I’d love to expand my experience in that genre this year (currently, I pretty much worship at George Orwell’s feet).  Anything else you’d like to add to the discussion?

23 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2008 2:46 pm

    Every year I think I’m going to read more non-fic and somehow at the end of the year my non-fic reads are still just a small percentage. I do tend to think of non-fic as “heavier” books and so I tend to put them off more but it’s so silly because there are certainly some well-written, engaging non-fic reads. I just need to seek them out more often. Actually this weekend I’m in the mood for some non-fic but just can’t think of which book to start :)

  2. February 16, 2008 2:53 pm

    I have this problem with nonfiction, myself. I do treat it like a chore, which is not a good thing — I love to learn, but I’m so spoiled because I developed that love through lecture courses where the reading was required but a lot of it was supplementary to the discussions where the real learning took place. All those nonfiction titles were fun for me because then the classes I was in would discuss them and bounce back thoughts. I loved that. Now that I don’t have that support system any longer, I’ve shunted nonfiction to the side. That’s my excuse, but it’s pretty lame. I need to get better; can’t rely on hilarious and fiery debates about nonfiction forever, and there’s no such thing as book clubs for nonfiction around these parts.

    Last year I read one nonfiction title I loved a lot — Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. It was fascinating and interesting and there are some other books in the same vein (like The Topping Point) that I was going to check out, but then I didn’t have anyone to talk about them with, and my brain checked out. SAD TIMES.

    I committed myself to four nonfiction titles this year, but so far haven’t touched any of them. Not a good start! I like the way you think of it, though — continuing education.

  3. February 16, 2008 3:22 pm

    Before I get into non-fiction, I have to say that the way you review sounds a bit like how I review. By the time I finish a book, a review is already waiting in my head largely completed, as it came to me in bits and pieces while I was reading.

    My reading definitely leans toward fiction (only 8 out of 57 read last year were non-fiction), but I definitely find my non-fiction reading experiences rewarding most of the time… which makes me often wonder why I’m disinclined to read it. I guess I feel like non-fiction is often more of a longer-term commitment and deep in my heart of hearts, I’m kinda lazy. I tend not to make too many rules for myself in terms of reading since I find that it’s so easy to break the rules I make up myself in rebellion against a feeling of being too tied down by my self-made reading schedule. That said, this year might turn out better for non-fic merely by chance. I’ve already got one under my belt (and one that might as well have been – Schindler’s List), I’m reading one now, and I’ve got two more waiting on the soon TBR pile. I won’t go much more into it, as I got tagged for the same meme – so I’ll write my own non-fictiony post soon instead of adding even more to this already over long comment!

    But since I’m at it (and you asked!), here are some recs of some non-fiction works that have stuck with me:

    There Is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene
    Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
    Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus
    No Matter How Loud I Shout by Edward Humes
    True Notebooks by Mark Salzman

  4. February 16, 2008 5:55 pm

    Some of my favorite non-fiction books of all time are:
    In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
    Into Thin Air by Jon Krakaur
    Manhunt: The 12 day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (James Swanson).

    All three of these books had me riveted on the edge of my seat. I recommend them to everyone I meet, well, anyone who is interested in reading.

  5. February 16, 2008 10:15 pm

    I really should read more nonfic, but I don’t :( I keep saying that “I’m going to change that” and I never do…*sigh* Last year, I read a couple of C.S. Lewis books, The Four Loves was good…and a book called “What it Takes to get me Through” by David Marcus which I absolutely loved and can’t recommend highly enough…but that one was in my field, adolescent psychology. I think your challenge sounds great and it may be the kick in the arse that I need!

  6. February 16, 2008 11:21 pm

    There are so many non-fiction books that I love so much (anything Bill Bryson, for example) and I always feel like I’m taking more away from it than I do from a fiction book, but it’s just more FUN to read fiction! Good fiction, anyways. But this year, I’m holding myself to one non-fiction for every fiction. It’s my great non-fiction challenge 2008. It’s hard, though, when I read two crappy fiction books in a row, and all I want to do is race through a nice narrative, but I have to reach for something instructive. I know I’ll love it, but I resist it because I ‘have’ to. But if I didn’t ‘have’ to, I wouldn’t. So there you go.

  7. February 17, 2008 6:51 am

    Seven non-fic book a month is quite a challenge. I’m not setting myself any goals for non-fic books – but I’m just walking towards the non-fic shelves more frequently these days when I am at the library. This way, the non-fic reading feels more spontanteous.

    Essayist — have you tried Anne Fadiman’s “At Large and At Small”? She tries to revive the neglected art of the personal essay in that very charming collection. If you like it, she has a recomended list at the back of the book, I think.

  8. February 17, 2008 6:52 am

    I just posted about my non-fic reading for the Sunday Salon. I’ve found non-fiction to be an almost airtight “slump buster” when I’m having a hard time picking a book up. Politics, memoirs, foodie books, women’s studies. It doesn’t really matter. I love ’em!

  9. cabegley permalink
    February 17, 2008 7:42 am

    I loved this post, because while I like reading nonfiction, I often find that I have to consciously add it to my reading diet, like vegetables. I set myself a goal this year of 25 nonfiction, and I’m actually on a bit of a nonfiction kick right now (three in a row) that I think was set off by reading an excellent, deeply layered novel (Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx) that left the next fiction I read feeling flimsy and flat.

    For essays, I would also recommend Anne Fadiman. I’m not sure if you’d actually call them essays, but Joseph Mitchell’s collected pieces in Up in the Old Hotel are excellent. Other than that, my favorite nonfiction I read last year included The Circus Fire by Stewart O’Nan, Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean, The Bounty by Caroline Alexander, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, and The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan.

  10. February 17, 2008 8:17 am

    I try to keep my non-fic / fiction about 50/50. Sometimes I’ll go through long stints of one or the other, but it always seems to even out. Nonfiction starts to feel like a chore to me when I begin reading books I feel I “ought” to because I’d like to know more about the subject, even if the book is boring me to death. I’ve since figured it’s better to search out the ones that are well-written and easy or fun to read, instead of hurtful (to my brain) or sleep-inducing. I actually learn more that way, too! It’s worth the trouble of searching for those good non-fic authors. And sometimes the writing is so excellent I don’t mind a little brain-pain. Growing pains are good for me, too.

  11. Lisa permalink
    February 17, 2008 10:02 am

    I also set a non-fiction goal for myself this year. I always enjoy it when I do read it, so why don’t I read more. Lately the only non-fiction I’ve been reading is essays, but I guess that counts.

    Also blogging at

  12. February 17, 2008 4:07 pm

    I love reading nonfiction, although I read less of it than fiction, but that works for me, as I tend to read nonfiction slowly to give myself time to absorb it. I’ve realized that the books I tend to remember best and to admire most are often nonfiction books, which surely says something! I love essays, and my favorite collection is Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. I think Virginia Woolf and Mary McCarthy are excellent essayists.

  13. February 17, 2008 9:18 pm

    I don’t read anywhere near as much as you do, but I do set goals and rules for reading, and I love to read nonficiton. I don’t read as much nonficiton as fiction, but I choose books at the beginning of each month to try to read during the month, and at least one always has to be nonfiction, but I typically have more than one. I’m with you on notes and bibliographies (and good indexes, too!). It’s hard to trust a nonfiction work that doesn’t have them.

  14. February 18, 2008 9:16 am

    Iliana, I think that’s how a lot of us feel!

    Renay, that sounds like fun classes!I hated my discussion-based classes in college, but that’s because I’m more interested in what the professors have to say than the students. I’m hoping discussion in grad school will be more intelligent! I’ll check into that book. :)

    Megan, isn’t it funny how reviews do that?I’m good with rules as long as I give myself enough free space as well! And as long as they’re rules I set. :) If I’m not really specific, I just won’t get anything done. Thanks for all of those recommendations-I read True Notebooks last year and loved it, so I”ll have to check out the rest!

    TY, thanks for the list!

    Chris, those ones sound really neat. :) I love C.S. Lewis, even if he and I are on different theological planets!

    Raych, I keep wanting to read Bill Bryson, but I haven’t gotten around to him. You’re trying to keep a 1:1 ratio?! That’s very ambitious! I read fiction much more quickly than non-fic, so it’d be almost impossible for me to keep that kind of ratio. Good luck!

    Dark Orpheus, it’s funny…the seven non-fic/month thing ended up with me reading more booksthan ever, because I didn’t want to give up my fiction! I’ll definitely look at the Fadiman collection-I read her Ex Libris collection and was impressed with her writing. Thanks for letting me know!

    Andi, I agree: non-fic is a great slump buster. :)

    Cabegly, thanks for these recs! We Wish to Inform You is one my favourite non-fics ever. :)

    Jeane, 50/50 is impressive! I agree-it’s definitely worth it to find the grea authors! Have you tried Peter Hessler?

    Lisa, thanks for stopping by! Essays definitely count-I’ll be sure to check out your blog for reviews. :)

    Dorothy, oohhh-how did I forget about Virginia Woolf?! I’ll look into the other two as well! I agree-I like to read my nonfic more slowly. :)

    Emily, yay for another rule/goal gal!! I can’t believe I forgot to include indexes-another good sign. :D I think that’s a lot of my hesitation about memoirs for so long: no kind of support!

  15. February 18, 2008 3:28 pm

    I like to read non-fiction, but I also seem to procrastinate about doing it. I have a goal that 25% of my reading will be non-fic, last year it was only 17% (although better than the year before at 11%). This year I’m doing quite well due to the fact that most of the ARC’s I’m reading and reviewing are non-fic. And, if I ever get around to picking up parenting books again (I was a bit overwhelmed with all the books I read during pregnancy, I still haven’t completely recovered!), that will probably up my numbers!

    I like the idea of an IR themed challenge (sometime in the far future), I’m curious to see what you have up your sleeve. :)

  16. antipodeanowl permalink
    February 18, 2008 4:23 pm

    I’m always very impressed and a tad envious of people who can set themselves reading ‘goals’ and ‘challenges’, as I struggle to stick to even a vague TBR list. I love making big long non-fiction reading lists, and researching definitive bibliographies on subjects, but as soon as I try to turn the theory into reality, my inner five year old crosses her arms, stamps her foot and grumbles, ‘I don’t wanna read it!’

    I’d like to claim its just some sort of hangover from University, of years of being told what to read and when, but if I’m really honest with myself I’ve always been like it!

    What saves me and my reading quota’s is my almost unconcious yearning to ‘get’ how societies, nations, culture and people all ‘work’. The smallest thing will get me really interested in a particular topic and I’ll be obssessed with it for weeks and weeks devouring as many books on it as possible, searching for the ‘truth’ of how it all works. Then as soon as I’ve achieved a solid level of comprehension, I’ll get bored and start looking for my next ‘obssession’, promptly restarting the cycle.

    So whilst its totally devoid of structure, when I let my reading follow my whims, I find that I get through a stack of non-fiction titles, without it feeling like I should be taking notes, and without catching my little inner voice sighing and going ‘this is boring!’ I’m still on the hunt for a career in which my ‘talent’ would be suited! :D

  17. February 19, 2008 9:41 am

    Great post! I read non-fiction regularly and enjoy it very much. I tend to go in phases with it, I’ve noticed, though recently I like to have a NF book going at all times and go back and forth. My husband says I read what I already know – he’s right – while he likes to read opposing viewpoints. I can appreciate that, but with my limited reading time it’s hard for me to get myself to do that.

  18. February 19, 2008 9:45 am

    Even though my main focus is definitely fiction, I do read quite a big of nonfiction, and haven’t ever felt like I should increase or decrease it. One nonfiction leads to another, if the first one grabs my interest!

    And yes, I write like you do! I remember when we were constantly told prewriting, prewriting, prewriting! And since all my prewriting happens in my head in its own sweet time, I tended to invent fake prewriting to turn in with my papers.

  19. February 21, 2008 5:46 am

    Alisia, I’m reading/reviewing a bunch of non-fic as well, which definitely helps. I can understand feeling overwhelmed by parenting books-my sister felt the same way! :)

    AntipodeanOwl, that’s so interesting, how you end up delving into one thing for quite awhile and then get bored. And that you can’t make lists-my inner five year old is the one who asked for extra homework from the teacher! lol

    Tara, thanks! I don’t really search out opposing viewpoints either, unless it’s in my field…otherwise, I end up yelling at the book and that just seems silly. :)

    Dew, I always invented prewriting as well! lol

  20. February 22, 2008 7:24 am

    Awesome post and one I will refer back to as I keep adding to my tbr list. I think I will post my own response but I do want to suggest that Tracy Kidder is a good place to start for new to NF, imho. Eva, have you read Mountains Beyond Mountains? And, I’m not much of a list and planner, either. Trying all these challenges (too much stress!) has shown me that the more random I come to reading anything, the more I enjoy it.

  21. February 27, 2008 1:27 pm

    Care, thanks! I read a book about a teacher by Kidder last year and really enjoyed it! I”ll have to look into Mountains Beyond Mountains-thanks. :)


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