I come from a public library background, so I was once very used to thinking of nonfiction in terms of subject. Most library nonfiction collections are, after all, shelved according to the Dewey Decimal classification system. (Academic libraries aren't immune to this focus on subject; they just use the Library of Congress system instead.) But the day I read Matthew Hart's fantastic science/business book Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession, I had a little epiphany: the appeal of nonfiction didn't have to be about subject. I do not have any particular interest in diamonds, and if you suggested a book to me based on its geological information, I can't say I'd be too interested. But that was the book that got me hooked on nonfiction.
So then for many years when I would talk to people about nonfiction, I went too far the other way. Don't think it's all about subject, I said. Sure, a lot of readers will ask for nonfiction by subject (particularly when they want to read biographies or histories), but a lot of readers will read good nonfiction on a variety of subjects in which they don't even know, really, that they're interested. Take a book like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Huge bestseller, big word-of-mouth book, and what is its subject? Causality. I defy you to find reader who has ever asked for a nonfiction book specifically on the subject of causality.
But after the two books I started last week, found myself not particularly enjoying, but still having to finish, I am back to the realization that yes, sometimes, subject does matter. I'll talk about these two books the next couple of days, but in the meantime, can you guess what the subject matter was that had me so enthralled? (And no, it's not British history.) Or, as a parallel, what kinds of subjects will you always read nonfiction on, even if the books you find on it aren't particularly well-written?