Why — and how — to read more nonfiction

About a quarter of the books I read in 2017 were nonfiction. I did a spot check of my yearly lists and found my nonfiction reading ranges from about 10 to 25 percent. Memoirs and narrative journalism are my sweet spot, though this year, I fell into deep rabbit holes of American history.

That probably explains why I've been getting more than the usual amount of anti-nonfiction chatter. "Oh, I just can't get into books like that." "Nonfiction puts me right to sleep." "It's great that you read books like that, but I find them so dry!" Whenever I'm carting around science or history books, this is what I get. But good nonfiction is not dry or boring. It gives blood and guts to people long ago reduced to dust and a single sentence in a text book. My favorite example: The Philosophical Breakfast Club, a book about four 19th century scientists who were friends, sounds and looks dry as dirt, but these scientists all went to college together, and Laura J. Snyder fleshes out their letters to each other and shares stories about them drinking like fish and carousing like frat boys in between major discoveries. I laughed all through that book and read half of it aloud to my (very patient) husband.

I love fiction, but learned in third grade, when my teacher shut me down for citing a Little House book when I answered a question about pioneers, that nonfiction provides facts. And facts are what you need when you want to know what you're talking about.

Here are my tips for reading nonfiction: 

  • Pick topics that interest you. This sounds stupidly simple, but nonfiction is not the place to read a book because everyone else is. 
  • Know who's writing. Total objectivity is bullshit. Everyone comes at topics with their life experiences and beliefs. Check the author's bio, maybe do a Google search and read an article or two. Get a handle on where she is coming from. 
  • Read journalists. I am biased, but some of the best nonfiction I've read comes from people who have worked in newsrooms (e.g. David Simon). They spend lots of time with people, learn to write tight, and are, generally, curious and in possession of a sense of humor.
  • Let one book lead you to another. Check the bibliography for your next read. Consider a biography about the most interesting person in the book. Don't really understand an idea? Pick up a book about it. 
  • Avoid books with footnotes. Your mileage may vary here, but I detest footnotes. They distract me and it feels like lazy editing. If it's that important, fit it into the main text. 

I also like these tips from Harvard Business Review, which basically amount to this: SKIM. I've done that with particularly dense books, or at the start of books I read in their entirety to get a sense of where they're going and how they're going to make their arguments/narrative. It helps to have a roadmap as you read. I'd add that book reviews are great for getting a basic handle on a book.

I'll leave you with this excellent list: 10 books to read if you think you don't like nonfiction