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25 July 2011


That's a great big issue you've identified. For many readers, me included, subject is way more important in nonfiction than in fiction. With fiction, subject is usually only important in very broad, oblique ways. Instead of caring about topic I tend to care about genre, theme, or setting.

For instance, I don't care one way or the other about subject in novels about contemporary American life. Jonathan Franzen's book Freedom happened to have an ecological focus, but did not have much to do with the economy.

But in nonfiction, subject is huge for me. I deliberately seek out nonfiction on ecological themes, and deliberately avoid nonfiction about the economy, unless the author is Matt Taibbi.

My observations at the Ref Desk jibe with my approach to authors. I have a few beloved nonfiction authors I follow, but normally I read for subject, and then somewhere in the middle of the book I'll flip to the back flap to find out who the author is. With fiction, I follow lots of different authors, reading whatever they publish unless it turns out to be complete crap. I wouldn't normally have read a Bond book, but because my beloved Jeffrey Deaver picked up the mantle, of course I checked it out.

Yes, the more I think about it, the more I realize it IS a "great big issue." I go back and forth--when I find a great NF book about a subject I never would have chosen on subject alone, I think, wow, NF has nothing to do with subject! And then I seek a book on a subject I enjoy and think, wow, NF has everything to do with subject. It's a conundrum.
The question about fiction and subject is an interesting one too. I really don't care about subject in fiction when I'm browsing, but I DO pick up novels on subjects I'm interested in, like food and professional chefs (and the novel "Girl Cook," just the first example that came to mind). On the other hand, my "deal breakers" work across F and NF lines--recommend a F or NF book about WWII to me only at your own risk.
I tend to follow authors of F and NF with about the same degree of obsessiveness--I will read everything of Anne Tyler's, and everything of William Langewiesche's. And when fiction authors write NF? Well, that's just too exciting for words.
Can you believe I haven't read a Deaver yet? Must get on that.

There are some topics that are sure bets for me -- ancient and medieval history, and popular physics, for example. And then there are must read authors -- Bill Bryson, Mary Roach, John Julius Norwich, Michael Palin all come to mind.

Other than that, I'll pick up "buzz" books, or quirky histories of a single topic, like chocolate or plastic or the like -- or (lately) something that you review that perks my interest! The only things I won't touch are straight biographies and celebrity memoirs; I haven't read one yet that didn't bore me.

I will read almost any book on American radicalism, no matter how poorly written. I read a ton of memoirs of varying quality. I also am not very picky about quality when it comes to biographies of poets. Good question!

Nonfiction books are my vegetables. I mostly read them because they are good for me and because they make me more knowledgeable. I rarely read them for the sake of sheer indulgence. That's what fiction is for, though naturally I am pleased when I like the taste of my nonfiction vegetables.

I can never articulate quite why it is so, but fiction strokes my pleasure-reading neurons in a way that nonfiction can't.

Anyway, that's why subject is so important to me in NF. I read NF for the purpose of learning more about a pet topic, not because a plot summary sounded interesting.

Maybe that's a bad thing. If I were an academic I would be expected to cultivate a specialty, but since I'm just a general learner I ought to be taking in lots of different topics, else I risk myopia. (If I had bothered to read stuff on pop culture I might have known who this Amy Winehouse (sp?) was, and then I could have been properly shocked to learn that she'd died.)

Now then. Jeffery Deaver. He counts as an honorary British author now that he's 1.) written a Bond novel and 2.) not been tarred and feathered for it. The Brits seem to like it quite well.

It was a novella that first turned me on to him. If you'd like to give him a quick try before committing to a novel, get his short story collection Twisted. The story "Triangle," in particular, should blow your mind with its plot twist.

Subjects that attract me no matter what the nonfiction writing style include American history, Negro League baseball, the Atlantic slave trade, the conservation of bird species, travel in Africa, and Mark Twain. There always seems to be something new for me to learn, which I enjoy. I guess I am pretty devoted to nonfiction. Most fiction just seems to be something somebody made up. (I say that having just enjoyed several novels.)

I love Buddhist philosophy, history, Africa, health/medicine (just picked up "The Blue Death" on your recommendation, food/diet/cooking/eating (occupational hazard), language (also picked up "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue"), and anything that deals with brain function. I used to read only fiction, but I find as I get older that NF is just as interesting.

Fascinating run of topics there. And I know just what you mean about picking up "quirky" books; I just haven't been having much luck finding them lately. Can you recommend a good basic readable book on physics, by the way? Preferably something even easier than Richard Feynman's "Six Easy Pieces," which, sadly, I didn't find very easy?

Nonfiction as vegetables?!?! Sacrilege! I think a lot of people feel that way, but I must say since I got hooked a decade ago that I don't really view NF as my homework, or something that must be got through. Ironically, I feel that way about a lot of (particularly mainstream/literary) fiction, which I often read just to see what all the buzz is about. (The Help by Kathryn Stockett? Anything by Jodi Picoult? Now THOSE books are vegetables, overcooked limp veggies with all their nutrients gone but which still retain their unexciting taste.)
All of that said, I too like the endorphin rush from really good fiction, but like the endorphin rush through exercise, it's just too hard to find to make it worth it (for me).
And thanks for the Deaver suggestion!

CR: have you read Natalie Angier's THE CANON? It lays out beautifully the current state of all the basic scientific disciplines, starting with physics.

It's currently my "go-to gift" for high school graduates.

I don't know that I've read any books on American radicalism. Fascinating. Can you suggest a good one?

Holy cow, that's quite the diverse list. I think I could tell about the bird and baseball interests from your blog, but the other subjects are interesting too. Do you ever pick up biographies outside those primary subject interests, and if so, why? (You're my go-to guy for biographies, after all.)

Wow, that's quite the range as well. History, health, philosophy, etc? You pretty much have the Dewey Decimal spectrum covered.
Do you remember when you started to turn from fiction and why? And what fiction you enjoyed when you used to read it (or even when you read it now)? Just curious.

I have had "The Canon" from the library but never got it read. Time to get it back! I also LOVE the GNs on physicists, like Jim Ottaviani's Suspended in Language (about Niels Bohr). I didn't understand most of it but it was fascinating all the same. Thanks for the suggestion!

Yeah, CR, I'm an omnivorous reader without a huge amount of discretion. I also get caught in what "everyone" is reading, which often makes me doubt "everyone's" taste. (Last example was "A Reliable Wife", which I hated). NF I (still) read a lot of mysteries, gothic novels, and used to read a ton of trashy romances which have fallen by the wayside as I increase my NF reading.

I think I started reading more NF by just perusing the "new arrivals" shelf at the library. I'm kind of upset that now they are putting all the NF in the basement of our "new" library, including the new releases. I think a large part of the appeal of NF for me is that you can use what you learn in conversation, more than you would from even a great fiction book. Honestly, I just brought up Semmelweis in conversation at work last week.

Oh, this is good stuff.

There are some subjects I read about compulsively (aviation, space travel, Buddy Holly, JFK), but I don't necessarily *finish* the books if I don't like the writing style.

And there are other nonfiction books I hear about (or read about in a review) that I would *never* choose based on their subject matter, but the description of the writing style makes me pick them up. I think this is the Big Thing that has happened in nonfiction over the past several years -- the shift from topic-based reading to "This is an amazing book to read."

love the term "omnivorous" when it comes to reading. Me too!
I'm with you on not typically enjoying the bandwagon books either, although I'm drawn to them like a moth to a flame (hated "Running with Scissors," "Three Cups of Tea," etc., I'll probably have to read Jaycee Dugard's memoir, etc.). Although I kind of enjoyed "A Reliable Wife." What did you hate about it?
You raise a VERY important point about NF--its "talkability." I find that's one of my very favorite things about it too. So glad you've been able to make use of the Semmelweis already!!

I agree: super good stuff.
I really like your list of interests too: completely unrelated and yet related (the day the music died, etc.). And it's a great point about style--I find sometimes I am also just not in the mood, even sometimes for things where the subject really should interest me. I get this feeling there's a lot more to talk about here. I'll have to post and ask about it some more, methinks.

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