Literary Hop: Nonfiction

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Literary Blog Hop

This week's literary blog hop poses the question

Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction? If so, how do you define it? Examples?

I have been excited to answer this question since I read it this morning. I love nonfiction. And I would say that much of it is literary.

Consider this quote by Ramon y Cajal, a pioneer in neuroscience (he diagrammed these beautiful dendritic processes from what he observed under his microscope)

"What mysterious forces precede the appearance of these processes... promote their growth and ramification... and finally establish those protoplasmic kisses... which seem to constitute the final ecstasy in an epic love story." (quoted from Kandel's Principles of Neural Science, pg. 1068). (This is in reference to neuronal processes finding their synapses)

In general I wouldn't consider a neuro textbook to be literary (try reading one of those things), but I love that quote and I think it demonstrates that literariness, in the sense defined on The Blue Bookcase (basically, demonstrating aesthetics and not simply entertainment or information) can appear in unexpected places.

But moving on from that, I have read many nonfiction books that are literary (and a few that are not... I am specifically remembering Charlotte Church's autobiography, Voice of an Angel). One of the first nonfiction books I read for pleasure was a collection of essays by Joan Didion that I found in my AP English teacher's bookshelf in high school (the same teacher of "abandon hope all ye who enter here"). I don't even remember the title of the book, and I can't find the cover on Amazon. However, I remember being moved by the poignancy of her writing and the people she described. Many of the essays described drug dens, poverty, hippies, things I hadn't encountered in my small, conservative, well-off town. She pulled me into that world with words that I would never have experienced otherwise, and it was all the more moving for me because it was true.

Currently I am reading a biography of John Adams. (It was due yesterday, so hopefully I will have it finished and reviewed in the next few days). Not all biographies are literary or enjoyable. I have very little patience for the ones that are so stuffed with facts and dates that everything begins to run together. However, this biography reads almost like a novel, not because the writer sensationalizes or invents but because John Adams' life is written with skill. McCullough, the writer, does not simply relay facts - he illustrates, brings to life, illuminates. He presents the facts in a way that makes me feel as if he were telling me conversationally about his grandfather. This is probably why McCullough has won the Pulitzer for another of his books, Truman.

There are several non-fiction books I am hoping to read soon. The number one on my list is The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It is about cancer - its history, treatments, and people whose lives have been affected by it. I read a glowing review of it yesterday which made me even more excited to read it. Hopefully I will get my hands on it soon!

What about you? Do you like nonfiction? What do you like/dislike about it?

The literary blog hop is hosted by The Blue Bookcase. Thanks for a great prompt this week!


  1. Joan Didion is a great example. Her book The Year of Magical Thinking is a brilliant, lovely piece of writing.

  2. I think that McCullough's John Adams is what got me into nonfiction...I read it for book club and was amazed that a biography could be such great reading.

  3. Wonderful examples -- I do enjoy a good non-fiction, and I need to read more of it in the coming year.
    Here's my Literary view...: Coffee and a Book Chick -- Literary Blog Hop...

  4. great answer-I hope to read the Adams biography in 2011

  5. McCullough's biography of John Adam's was such a great book. More so than most biographies, the reader comes to feel a personal connection to the subject. Good post and good examples!

  6. Beautiful quote and wonderful examples!

    Thank you also for joining my Back to the Classics Challenge!! I'm excited to get started!

  7. Great examples! This blog hop is doing terrible things to my tbr pile! :)

  8. I've had a lot of friends that have loved that biography of John Adams. For some reason though I'm hesitant to read David McCullough, I get the sense he takes a lot of liberties and that it would bug me. I guess I won't really know though until I give him a try!

  9. @Amy - I've seen quite a few references to The Year of Magical Thinking in this hop! I will definitely have to pick that one up soon.

    @Melody - John Adams is definitely a great read. I visited your blog and saw that you read a lot of nonfiction, I'm going to have to add some to my tbr.

    @Coffee and a Book Chick - Thanks for the visit! Your examples looked quite interesting. I've been wanting to read A Moveable Feast for a while.

    @mel u - It is a great read, I hope you enjoy it!

    @petekarnas - Yes, that is what I am enjoying most about John Adams. I feel like I am getting to know his character.

    @Sarah - I am so excited for your challenge. I hope to get a post up about it in the next few weeks.

    @gautami tripathy - I'm glad you liked the quote. It made me smile when I came across it while studying! And I appreciate that in your answer you considered some scientific books to be literary nonfiction.

    @litlove - Mine as well! I don't know when I will have time to read them all. Maybe some time I'll start/find a nonfiction challenge, that always propels me to do more reading.

    @IngridLola - At times I feel like McCullough is a bit biased, but most of his narrative is backed up by direct quotes from letters and articles of the time, at least in John Adams. It's not a perfect book, but still one I would recommend.

  10. Becoming to feel a bit of a philistine at the moment, not read any of these, so may have to change my perspective.

  11. Joan Didion is a great example! I really enjoy nonfiction and one of my goals for 2011 is to read more of it. My husband has the John Adams bio on audio... will listen when he's done.

  12. The Emperor of All Maladies sounds really interesting!

  13. Thank you for sharing The Emperor of all Maladies. I tried to find it at my public library, but it is apparently not widely available here yet. I was able to add it to my Amazon wishlist.

    Here's my post on literary nonfiction. I'd love to hear what you think.

    And if you have read any wonderful literary books
    published in 2010, I urge you to nominate your favorites
    for The Independent Literary Awards. The awards
    include categories of Literary Fiction and Literary Non-Fiction.
    Nominations close December 15.


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