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):
- The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan
- The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman
- Before The Mayflower A History of the Black Negro in America 1619-1964, by Lerone Bennett, Jr.
- America in the King Years (volumes 1 & 2), by Taylor Branch
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?