Why I Read... Nonfiction

Thursday, November 10, 2011

If you know me very well at all, you probably know that I had a really hard time deciding what to study in college (evidenced by the fact that I am now on my sixth year of undergraduate study. Fortunately now I have one bachelor's degree to my name). I toyed with piano, sociology, French, English, and psychology before settling down with neuroscience with the hopes of going to pharmacy school when I was done. After several circumstances led me to the decision that pharmacy school was not going to be the right choice for me, I finished up my neuroscience degree and started a second degree accelerated bachelor's in nursing, which is where I am now. The jury's still out on whether or not I'll actually ever get a real job.

The reason I am telling you all of this is because I love to learn. Nearly every subject interests me (except accounting... sorry, Mom) and I used to think that if I had the money, I would just go to school forever (I am learning now that isn't true... six years of undergraduate work has finally burned me out and I can't wait to be done with school). So nonfiction is an obvious choice for me -- reading a nonfiction book is like taking a crash course in any subject you want.

With that said, I haven't been reading that much nonfiction lately. There are two reasons for this -- first of all, nonfiction is hard to read. I don't like to read it all at once, in general, because I feel like if I read it too quickly, I forget everything I learn and don't retain anything. Secondly, I am on the nonfiction panel for the Indie Lit Awards and I don't want to burn out on nonfiction by reading too much of it before I need to read the five finalists next year. Nonfiction books tend to be pretty thick and I know I will be reading a high volume come January, so I want to have the brain space ready for it. However, don't think that means I don't love it.

Why I Read Nonfiction

* Learning. I've loved to learn new things my entire life, and reading nonfiction allows me to learn things that are outside of my normal field of study.
* True stories. In the case of histories, biographies and memoirs, we get the chance to see inside of people's lives. I love learning about things that have really happened -- that realization that someone really felt the emotions I am experiencing as I read about it. Even when I was a little girl I remember being most excited by movies that were "based on a true story."
* Feel-good factor. No, I'm not talking about warm fuzzies, although I certainly have gotten those from certain memoirs and religious nonfiction. What I mean is that I get to feel good about myself for taking it upon myself to read something difficult and also intellectually edifying.


* Anything by Oliver Sacks. While in general I've just read excerpts from his books, I can confidently say that anything you read by this fantastic neuroscientist will be readable and informative. Sacks takes the very strangest of cases and presents them with factual but comprehensible information that appeals to the general public.
* John Adams by David McCullough. This biography is a hefty beast, and I remember reading it on the treadmill, hoping that it would stay open and not fall on my foot. It is a fascinating look into the life of a man I knew next to nothing about. John Adams has become one of my heroes from this book, and I really want to name one of my children Abigail after his wife (The Husband is vetoing that, for now). This book was compulsively readable despite its length. 
* The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This comprehensive look at the way perceptions and treatments of cancer have evolved through the centuries is sensitive and compelling.
* Into the Wild by John Krakauer. This is a book I severely need to reread. Krakauer drives into the psyche of Chris McCandless, a strange teenager that decides to live alone in Alaska and ultimately dies of exposure. The writing is penetrating and the story moving.

For more recommendations, visit...

Sophisticated Dorkiness. There is a reason Kim keeps winning Best Nonfiction blog for BBAW. She covers a wide variety of nonfiction genres, and her writing is excellent.
The Blue Bookcase. The ladies of The Blue Bookcase don't focus on nonfiction, but in reading their blog for a year I have found many interesting recommendations. 


  1. I had to do a pre-Indie Lit Awards reading cleanse last year too -- I spent most of December reading only books I wanted to read (no review copies, no obligations), so I wouldn't feel annoyed when I sat down with my big nonfiction book stack.

    Thanks for the mention, too :)

  2. I wrote a really long, great comment last week and then my computer decided to delete it (I think). I'm hoping this time around it works.

    I love nonfiction. I think it's so so interesting. Tracy Kidder is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. I also absolutely love Simon Winchester. He's written about a ton of things, but my favorites (so far) are The Meaning of Everything and The Professor and the Madman; both about the creation of the OED. Last year I heard him discuss Atlantic, which is a book filled with stories about the Atlantic ocean. It sounds fascinating, and I'm excited to read it.

    I haven't read Into the Wild, but I have to admit, I hate Jon Krakauer. I find him a very arrogant writer, I think he presents his opinions as fact, and his research is sloppy. (This ridiculously strong opinion is based on a long conversation about him and article by him from my current editing class. He might not actually be this bad, but I really don't like him.)

  3. @Kim - No problem! I am so excited to read the nonfiction books this year, but right now I am definitely getting down to the comfort reads.

    @Allison - Into the Wild is the only one I have read by Krakauer. I'll have to look into those authors!

  4. YES! I really think non-fiction is sorely underrepresented in the blogosphere, so I'm off to check out your recommendations of bloggers to stalk! Plus I've added a couple of new titles to my wishlist too.

    I absolutely agree that non-fiction is just amazing for those of us who love to learn. I had so much trouble picking a university course (and A-levels, and GCSEs...) because everything sounded so fascinating! Now I'm out the other end of the education system, reading non-fiction is my way of learning about everything I'm interested in, in a fun way, and feeling darn proud of myself every time I tackle a huge or hard-going but ultimately rewarding book.

    I mean, come on, HOW AMAZING is it to be able to think to yourself, "Huh, I think I'd like to know more about X" and be able to go right out to the library or a bookstore and find a book about it? Brilliant. :)

    1. I'm glad it was helpful! Like you I couldn't pick areas to specialize in -- I changed my major seven times. I love that there is so much information out there and that it is all available at the library.


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