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.