A couple of weeks ago, the students in my Adolescent Lit class confessed that they don’t read nonfiction. I can’t imagine a fulfilling literate life without nonfiction: I would guess that around half of the books I read each year are nonfiction. If I include the essays, magazines, articles, reviews, tweets, blogs, newspapers, and cookbooks I read (reading that I don’t track on any list), my literate life is dominated by it.
Certainly some of the nonfiction I read is really just for informational purposes. I read cookbooks to find recipes I want to cook. I read professional development books to find ideas to use in my classes. I read parenting books to find techniques to address my children’s annoying behaviors.
But most nonfiction I read for pure pleasure. Because the story is engaging, because the characters are captivating, because the language is vivid, because the writer’s voice is compelling. In short, for the very same reasons that I read fiction. The best nonfiction—Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, Philip Hoose’s Moonbird (to take just a few examples I’ve read over the past year)—is as compelling as a good novel.
I also love the learning that comes from reading nonfiction. My world is infinitely more full of wonder because I read nonfiction.
We didn’t have time in class to explore why my students aren’t keen on nonfiction, but I’m guessing it’s because they’ve mainly experienced the kind of nonfiction we assign students in school—textbooks and academic writing. Writing devoid of voice, vivid language, narrative technique. Writing that’s—let’s face it–not really meant to be read.
I came to my love of nonfiction through the essay, possibly my favorite form of writing. In college and grad school, I read my way through Montaigne, through Virginia Woolf, through hundreds of issues of The New Yorker. I still think essays are an excellent way to experience what nonfiction has to offer. Here are links to four of my favorites, plus a Sedaris bonus:
Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”
Susan Orlean’s “Lifelike”
Zadie Smith’s “Joy”
David Sedaris’s “Jesus Shaves” (sandwiched between two other Sedaris essays)