Midweek @ Musings: Is Nonfiction Better Than Fiction?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about reading nonfiction.  Not actually doing it, mind you, just thinking about it.  My 2011 reading is more than 90% fiction, up slightly from the past two years.  My LibraryThing catalog is more than 85% fiction; I have nonfiction books scattered around the house, not in my catalog, but still …  Imbalance gives me food for thought whether it’s about genre, author gender, owned books vs. library books, etc.

A few weeks ago, Zoe Williams published a piece in The Guardian, No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis?, strongly recommending people read “serious nonfiction” rather than novels.  Her premise is that fiction does not inform, and that excessive fiction reading creates an ill-informed society:

the storm we’re living through now makes me realise how little I understood of any of the past 20 years … The problem with ignorance is twofold: you feel alienated and disempowered, and that’s quite anxious-making, but you also feel embarrassed by the limits of your understanding, so you back out of the conversation.

Ms. Williams went on to say how “backing out of the conversation” results in a “government full of bankers and technocrats,” the implication being that a failure to read nonfiction results in a society lacking in the foundational knowledge and context to make sound decisions.

Harrumph.  I grumbled, and I pondered.  And I enjoyed episode 8 of The Readers podcast (show notes), in which Gavin and Simon debunked Ms. Williams’ thesis.  They didn’t like its preachy tone (“it’s like mum just told me off”), and noted that not everyone is in a place to influence global events so we don’t all need the same level of factual information.  Plus, fiction can be the perfect form of escape from stress and hard times.

About the same time, I listened to Books on the Nightstand Episode 156 (show notes).  Coincidentally published about the same time as the Guardian piece, the BOTNS duo discussed the concept of narrative nonfiction, defined as “nonfiction that reads like fiction, following a story and incorporating the elements of fiction such as plot, character, pacing, etc.”  Examples from my archives include Unbroken, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (click on the links for reviews).  I find this type of nonfiction more accessible than, say, a detailed and meticulously researched factual account of a subject.  And the more meticulous, detailed, and dense a nonfiction book, the more likely it will gather dust on my shelves.

My thoughts went off in about 100 directions, and are still germinating.  But I’ve formed two clear points of view out of this:

First, I respectfully disagree with Zoe Williams.  Reading fiction does improve your knowledge.  Ms. Williams implied fiction is all vapid, lightweight, escapist rubbish.  And yet I know a great deal more about American & British history, the historic role of women in society, the impact of World Wars I & II, colonialism and its aftermath, slavery, and racism, all from fiction read in 2011 alone.  I don’t purport to be an expert on any of these topics, but reading has enriched my world view.  My increased knowledge has proven useful in at least one setting:  solving the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.  How else would I have known “Biafra” and “codex”?  I loved it when my husband looked at me in wide-eyed wonder:  “how did you know that?”  Of course, if I were called upon to make weighty decisions about world affairs, I would need much more extensive knowledge.  But I certainly have what I need to function effectively as a cog in the great machine that is our world.

That said, I’d like to read more nonfiction, specifically narrative nonfiction.  I think this is the best way to begin redressing my reading imbalance, along with selective reading of memoirs and biographies.  As luck would have it, I have a few  nonfiction books on my shelves already that might qualify as narrative nonfiction (I need to peek inside to confirm):

I also want to keep my eyes open for new narrative nonfiction titles.  I don’t think I’ll make a seismic shift in 2012, but expect to do a bit better just because of my new-found awareness.

What thoughts do you have? 

  • Do you favor fiction over nonfiction, or read only certain types of nonfiction?
  • Have you read any of the above books, and would they qualify as narrative nonfiction?
  • Can you recommend any great nonfiction reads?
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18 thoughts on “Midweek @ Musings: Is Nonfiction Better Than Fiction?

  1. Anything by Barbara Tuchman could be considered narrative non-fiction. I think you made a great choice there. Taylor Branch’s books are also good, though I would say less of the narrative sort.

    I’ve had Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff on my shelf for several months now. I should really dust if off and make it a priority for 2012.

    I believe a lot could be learned from fiction and non-fiction. Why columnists and other have to pit the two against each other is beyond me….

    • Jill, I have the Cleopatra book on my wish list. There’s a new bio of Catherine the Great that’s supposed to be very good, too. And as to why columnists do what they do … well, I guess it sells newspapers!

  2. So here’s an experiment. Think of the people you know who read exclusively/primarily fiction. Now think of those who read exclusively/primarily non-fiction. With which group would you rather work? or sit at a dinner party? Which group has more of a capacity for abstract thinking? Which group is more likely to produce a pedantic boor.

    I think that all writing is, to a greater or lesser degree, a form of fiction — whether those subjective decisions are made about the creation of characters or the editing of “facts.” For myself, I feel that the challenge of reading non-fiction is to keep it in its proper perspective. Failing this you risk becoming the dreaded “person who is the product of the last book they read.”

    • Christopher, I agree with you about keeping nonfiction in perspective. Which reminds me, you ought to read A People’s History of the United States, which offers a very different perspective of what we were taught in school. I don’t think it would turn you into a pedantic boor … 🙂

  3. I love Christopher’s comment. I think fiction usually has much more complexity than standard non-fiction, though of course there are good and bad books in both categories. We can learn so much about life from great fiction books. I think they not only teach us facts about the world but also how (and how not) to navigate through life.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this recently too. I think I’ll enjoy narrative non-fiction a lot and I really need to read more. I plan to try a more next year too. If you’re after suggestions then there are loads in the comments of my recent post:
    http://www.farmlanebooks.co.uk/2011/do-you-have-different-criteria-for-fiction-versus-non-fiction-books/

    I really should summarise them one day as it seems a shame for them all to be buried in the comment section.

  5. Well, you won’t get me disagreeing with you, Laura…I absolutely think fiction can be informative. I love historical fiction and have learned A LOT about world history by reading that type of fiction. When I read nonfiction, I prefer narrative (or creative) nonfiction. Here are some nonfiction books which you might enjoy:

    The Zookeepers Wife by Diane Ackerman
    There is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene
    The Translator by Daoud Hari
    The Other Side of the River by Alex Kotlowitz
    Everything Is Broken by Emma Larkin
    The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz
    Hiroshima in the Morning by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

    I’ve reviewed all of these on my blog.

  6. Fiction for the win!

    I like thinking about and reading narrative nonfiction, and historical fiction, but I certainly read much more fiction than nonfiction.
    Here’s some of my recommendations:
    anything by Sarah Vowell (lots of American history)
    lots of science stuff:
    How I Killed Pluto and why it had it coming – Mike Brown
    E = mc2 (a biography of the famous equation, really good!)
    A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (all Bryson, right?)
    Longitude by Dava Sobel
    The Age of Persuasion by Terry O’Reilly
    Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen

    • Raidergirl, I think I remember you reviewing e=mc2 and it sounded pretty interesting. And I’m no physicist! Thanks for all the suggestions.

  7. Of course I agree about the power of fiction to inform. But I did set myself the goal of reading a dozen non-fiction titles this year — after I struggled so much with the three science reads in my 2010 — and that was terrific. I hope it just “happens” this year and that I don’t need to set an official goal (but we’ll see how quickly I fall back into my all-things-fiction-all-the-time habits).

    I haven’t read any of the books that you’re eyeing for 2012, but they sound interesting, and I can see why you’ve picked them up. One that I read a few years back, and which I periodically think of re-reading, that I think you might like is Charlotte Gray’s Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, but it’s slightly bookish, so maybe that’s cheating?!

    • BIP, I’m impressed that you read a dozen nonfiction titles this year. I’ve only read 5, and I don’t feel up to making any kind of commitment for next year. However, I did go through my LibraryThing catalog one more time to identify all the unread nonfiction, and I found a couple more interesting choices. So we shall see how it goes.

  8. I’m getting here a bit late in the conversation, but I must chime in. You’re right, Laura, that “selling papers” is part of the reason there must be a conflict presented, even if it is a phony one. Anyone who reads regularly, as we all do, probably reads a bit of this and a bit of that, and being made to feel guilty because we don’t read more of that and less of this is just not on. I do love reading well-written non-fiction myself, and I’m all for an informed populace, but there are all kinds of ways to accomplish that. So FIE on those who would tell us what we ought to be reading. I admire almost above all other writerly skills the ability to present history or science or any other subject in a narrative that flows well, engages the reader’s imagination and puts the spark to the intellectual fire. David McCullough is excellent at this, so if you want a bit of American history, try his 1776, or one of his excellent (though massive) biographies of Adams or Truman. If you enjoy natural history (and I suspect you would, even if you don’t already), I commend Annie Dillard or Stephen Jay Gould to you. Carl Sagan was popular on TV for a good reason—the man loved his subject matter, and could explain it with ease (Try Broca’s Brain or The Demon-Haunted World). Then there are memoirs, probably my favorite non-fiction genre, and essays. West With the Night, by Beryl Markham is a totally engaging read. Martha Gellhorn’s journalism, collected in The View From the Ground, is brilliant and quite lacking in objectivity. M.F.K. Fisher (Consider the Oyster) and Elspeth Huxley (The Flame Trees of Thika) — delightful. Is that enough to be getting on with? I’ll step down from my lectern now!! Oh, one more thing…notice that none my suggestions are especially “topical”, with the possible exception of Sagan, who wrote of issues that remain problematic in our world. What I think they all do so well is provide perspective, without which information is fairly useless.

    • Linda, that’s an amazing list of recommendations. I’ve read 1776 (listened to it, actually), and agree McCullough does a great job. I also read The Flame Trees of Thika in my teens and loved it. Now I’m especially interested in your natural history recommendations, as well as the Gellhorn, especially as you say it’s “quite lacking in objectivity.” That made me laugh!

  9. I made a concerted effort to read more non-fiction this year and ended up with 10 titles. Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time probably was the first I read (in 2010) that made me realize the kind of non-fiction I enjoyed, followed by The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson and Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demmick. I highly recommend all of those for you Laura.I have several lined up for 2012 including Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isobel Robertson, and The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund deWaal. I also have the Tuchman book on my shelves so maybe I’ll get to that one too.

    On the other hand, I do think there is a lot to learn from fiction and who doesn’t enjoy an author who knows how to turn a phrase or produce lovely prose. So I think a balance between fiction and non-fiction is ideal and not necessarily an equal balance. Just enough so that you, as a reader, are satisfied.

    • Bonnie, I think the Egan was inspired by your reading of it (it’s even possible you sent me your copy … sorry, I can’t remember!). I’ve heard great things about The Devil in the White City and have Cleopatra on my wish list. Someday I’ll get to them!! You’re right it’s all about maintaining a balance that works for you. Reading should always be fun and satisfying!

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