I didn’t have anything to contribute for last week’s Nonfiction November prompt, but this week’s (over at Doing Dewey) is interesting:
Nonfiction Favorites: We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.
Because I loved Blood Work so much, I have had reason to think about what makes a nonfiction book work really well recently. Of course, topic is important; that said, I am the type of dyed-in-the-wool geek that can be interested in almost anything if I learn enough detail about it. I love subjects related to medical history, women in STEM, and people’s reading lives. Other nonfiction books I have loved include a memoir about professional poker and a book focusing on single women’s involvement in political movements , though, so clearly it isn’t all topic. Poker, in particular, is something that I know nothing about and am not particularly interested in, so there must be other things about nonfiction that can grab me.
A lot of it probably is to do with writing style. I like nonfiction that has a strong narrative or storytelling element to it, something that is obviously central to memoir and can be present in history books as well. However, I really dislike it when something like history derails from the facts and becomes sensationalist. I abandoned Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy a couple of years ago, because it was getting more and more like a melodramatic Regency romance. Perhaps because a part of my job is reading scientific papers and appraising them for quality and rigour (and teaching other people how to do it), I don’t have a lot of patience with nonfiction that is sensationalised too much. It’s possible that I’m just boring, because I like footnotes and references and appendices. They allow me to check the author’s sources and notice if there’s any bias or any big gaps, as well as providing me with further reading material if I’m interested (and I am almost always interested).
One of the other perks of authors providing source material is that it helps them not to talk down to their readers. I sympathise with authors who end up doing this – explaining technical information to a lay audience is hard – but being patronised is irritating. There are so many examples of great books that convey very complex scientific information without speaking down to their audience. In fact, if an author can do that, the book tends to be an automatic win for me. Radioactive: A tale of love and fallout (Lauren Redness), a graphic biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, is a beautiful example of this being done really well. The book is full of illustrations of radium atoms and diagrammed scientific processes. There is a lot of technical information conveyed, but it is never too much, and it’s woven in with plenty of storytelling and biographical information as well.
I’ve read a few posts about author involvement in the narrative being a big plus for a lot of people, but for me it doesn’t work unless it is a book specifically about the author’s experiences. Again, I think this is a side effect of my job. To me, an author that regularly inserts themselves into the subject of a nonfiction book comes across as unprofessional, unless it is directly relevant. That might include an occasional reflection on methodology, but I don’t pick up nonfiction books about a particular historical time period to find out how researching the topic made the author feel. On the rare occasion that I’ve read and enjoyed sociological nonfiction, it’s a little different: in those instances, I feel like an occasional anecdote from the author is helpful, and acknowledges biases in a beneficial way. For the most part, though, I will stop reading a book if it has too much personal anecdote.
Overall, I think it is the combination of topic, style, and tone that helps me to really love a nonfiction book. It seems extremely hard to write good nonfiction, but when I come across it, I can sometimes love it even more than I love novels.
Great answer! I can also enjoy a book on almost any topic if it’s written about in engaging way and your favorite topics would all make a list of my favorites too. I loved Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy and found the writing exciting, but I heard later it might have some accuracy problems and perhaps the sensationalized approach should have made me more concerned about the book being factually correct. I share your love of footnotes and references though and definitely don’t think that makes you boring. At the point you’re reading something that claims to be nonfiction, it’s nice to be able to check that yourself 🙂
I’m glad I’m not alone in my love of footnotes!
I agree with you about authors jumping into books that aren’t about them. It seems highly random. I noticed this issue in the nonfiction book about the videogame Super Mario Bros 3, which I read this past summer.
While I agree that I want a factual book to be as factual as possible, there is something about writer Lidia Yuknavitch, who admits she blurs fiction and reality in all of her work. I feel like she is saying, “This is me; deal with it,” and I like that confidence.
Have you read Lab Girl? That author talked about how she tried to simplify some of the science, so some readers contacted her to tell her the lack of specificity made her inaccurate. She said writing her book was a challenging balancing act.
I don’t mind when it’s memoir or semi-autobiographical fiction, especially if it’s openly acknowledged by the author that there’s a mixture. As you say, it’s when factual books are not factual that it bothers me.
I loved Lab Girl! I have a great love for books about women in STEM anyway, and I thought it was really beautifully written. As a scientist but not a botanist, I thought Jahren wrote wonderfully about how science can be both exciting and isolating simultaneously-when you are the only person in the world who is looking at something specific and it’s hard to find people to share your insights or priorities. However, early in the book she wrote about preparing an intravenous drug infusion, something I have done hundreds of times, and because it was something that I know well, I found her style a bit patronising. I can see that botanists might have felt the same about the rest of the book. It really is challenging to write about science for a lay audience.