Don’t Hate on Nonfiction

28 Dec
nonfiction-wordle

Originally found here.

When friends ask me for a book recommendation, I’m really really good at it. I love reading and have a wide range of types of books that I read, and I have a knack for picking books for people that they will like. I take into account what I know about them as a person, as a reader, what their interests are, and I pick books that they end up loving, devouring. I wish there was a career there. A Reading Consultant. Much like a therapist, my clients could come in and describe their lives and their reading hangups to me, and I would guide them to a world of books that they never knew existed, a reading utopia. I wonder how much I could charge for that?

I was at work the other day talking with two of the veterinarians. Dr. L was about to take a week off from work to relax and spend time with her family on Long Island. She lamented to me about how she doesn’t take pleasure in reading anymore. In her undergrad, she was a dual major in Biology and English. The English major part of her feels guilty that she never reads anymore. She asked me for some book recommendations.

“What aren’t you liking about the books you’ve tried reading?” I asked her (see what a good Reading Consultant I am!)
“I get bored with the plots and find myself not caring. I end up skimming through huge chunks of the books trying to find the point. Med school ruined the way I read. I’m always trying to find the facts.”
“Then maybe you need to be reading Nonfiction.”
Both Dr. L and Dr. N gave me ick faces.
“Nonfiction is so horrible and boring,” Dr N said.
“Not the right kind of nonfiction! I love reading nonfiction. You just have to know where to find the non-textbooky nonfiction. Didn’t you love ‘Brain on Fire‘?” I asked Dr. L.
“I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.”
“There you go. That’s nonfiction. And with all the fucked-up tv and movies you watch, I bet you’d love true crime books. Have you ever read ‘Helter Skelter’ or ‘The Stranger Beside Me.'”
“I feel guilty. The English major in me feels like I should be reading works of literature.”

“You’re not in school anymore,” I told her. “No one gives a shit if you are reading Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. If you miss reading, just read whatever book you enjoy. You don’t have to force yourself to read classics.”

I believe that the majority of people who don’t read regularly or who say they don’t like reading are suffering from a form of PTSD from being forced to read boring, shitty books while in school and college. Some people suffer more than others. I understand that there are important classics that society wants the younger generations to be familiar with, but our school systems seem to be doing more harm than good in forcing literature on children. Not everyone is going to love Shakespeare or Milton or Emily Dickinson. And I think forced encounters with writers make people want to never read again once they are done with school. And I think the genres that suffer most are Short Stories, Poetry, and Nonfiction.

Nonfiction can be dull and full of research and works cited, or it can be exciting and strange. The old adage, stranger than fiction, is talking about nonfiction. When strange things happen in fiction, it’s easy to criticize them as a reader and say, “That would never happen.” In nonfiction, it’s all real and you find yourself saying “I can’t believe that happened!”

So I honestly believe that anyone who isn’t enjoying reading should start off my giving nonfiction a shot. I recommended “A Kim Jong Il Production” to Dr. L and when she came back from her vacation she gushed about how much she loved it and couldn’t put it down. See! Highly-acclaimed Reading Consultant Chrissy Wilson, at your service.

Some of my most-loved nonfiction titles:

  • The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. A book that doubles as a narrative of poor depression-era men at the University of Washington and describing the evolution of 1930’s Nazi Germany propaganda. The back and forth of the narrative works, and the characters are rich and endearing.
  • A Little Book of Language by David Crystal. For the word nerd, this book is a quick read about the nature of language and linguistics, how we learn language and how we use it.
  • Zeitoon by Dave Eggers. The story of a man from New Orleans who remained in the city during Hurricane Katrina. It documents the hurricane, the aftermath, and the way he was treated by government officials. It’s unbelievable that this sort of thing happened in America, and it shows how out-of-control American xenophobia (especially toward Muslims in the post 9/11 era) can be. Dave Eggers also wrote “What is the What,” another great nonfiction book documenting the immigrant experience.
  • The Peaceable Kingdom: A Year in the Life of America’s Oldest Zoo by John Sedgewick. A must-read for animal lovers. This is a perfect example of a nonfiction book that isn’t out to teach anything, just to tell the true story (more like stories) of people who work in an unconventional field.
  • Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Ann Lamott. If you’ve ever wanted to write, if you have ever felt trapped in a creative dead-end, this is the book that most every writer alive today has read and continues to turn to. It’s an inspiration about how to write and about how to live, which to writers is often the same thing.
  • Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach. I love books by Mary Roach because they are informative and digestible. She takes a big subject (in this case death) and writes quick chapters that describe the scientific approaches over the years to understand these topics. She talks about seances, the attempt to measure the soul (21 grams), angels.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. Another master of nonfiction, this book is about the history of the Mormon church. A classic example of a book where fact is stranger than fiction. It culminates in descriptions of fundamentalist Mormons. Important proof that all religions are prone to extremists and bad interpretation.

 

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2 Responses to “Don’t Hate on Nonfiction”

  1. Kate December 28, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

    basically you are a readers’ advisory — a key element to being a librarian.

    • Chrissy December 28, 2015 at 12:53 pm #

      Maybe I should become one then…

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