When I first thought about writing a piece on reading non-fiction, I thought of myself as an almost exclusive fiction reader. "I hate non-fiction," I thought. It’s dry, it’s boring, there’s no story! Fiction is so much more interesting, it allows the author to freely explore the human condition, but also to tell any story they choose. They can make up worlds, events, people. There is nothing quite as exciting as a good fiction book.
My next thought was, well, actually, I am a scientist and I read a lot of scientific papers, which are non-fiction (for the most part), and I do quite enjoy them and find them interesting. So maybe I’m not a non-fiction reader in the strict sense of the word, reading non-fiction books, but I actually do quite enjoy non-fiction in papers.
The next thing I did was go on Twitter and after looking through a variety of tweets, I clicked on an article about the snap election, and spent a while reading that. Then I read an article about the implications and effects of slavery in Europe, and then went into a loop of reading about the history of slavery in Europe on Wikipedia. Before I knew it, three hours had gone by, and I’d been reading non-fiction the whole time. So maybe I am a non-fiction reader?
After coming to the realisation that actually most of the things I read day to day were non-fiction, my next thought was that really, articles from the internet and checking the paper in the mornings and reading scientific articles don’t really count. After all, we all do that to an extent. What counts is non-fiction books. And I don’t read non-fiction books.
Or so I thought. This year a friend gave me The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker, for Christmas. It’s a book about how to write better, and it’s specifically geared towards clear non-fiction writing. It’s a fantastic book. It’s not just a good writing manual, it’s a wonderfully written, sharp, funny and interesting writing manual. Even if I weren’t remotely interested in writing, I would still enjoy reading this book. It’s a non-fiction book, and I am absolutely loving it. But the interesting part of this story came when I went to put the book away. I automatically put it in ‘its section’ in my bookshelf. And I found myself staring at my bookshelf in surprise: there were over 10 non-fiction books sitting right there. 10 non-fiction books that I had read, and I had loved reading.
They were mostly popular science books, the majority penned by Stephen J. Gould (if you are remotely interested in scientific writing and more specifically in evolution, and you haven’t read him, I suggest you find any of his books of essays, they are absolutely fantastic). I then remembered enjoying reading Jane Goodall when I was younger, and Gerald Durrell. I also remember reading accounts of the Second World War, and being fascinated by the subject. For some reason, none of these books had registered as non-fiction.
I think my problem is that, in my head, non-fiction is dry and boring. In my head, for some reason probably to do with text books, non-fiction is badly written. And that’s so far from the truth. Non-fiction, when it’s good, is absolutely great. It is engaging, funny, and it attempts to tell us something about the world. And in my experience, good non-fiction always tells a story.
I don’t think I can say whether fiction or non-fiction is a superior genre, or even that one of them necessarily is. I suspect that as long as an author wants to tell us something, as long as they believe it’s worthwhile, and they can tell it well, the product can be fascinating.
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