Teach me to read (and enjoy!) non-fiction!
December 7, 2008 5:56 PM   Subscribe

I love reading fiction, but non-fiction just doesn't hold my interest. I'd very much like it to -- I have a bunch of books I'd like to read, but I get a few pages in, and I just glaze over. Maybe it's the lack of plot? Am I doomed to reading only fiction, or can I learn to enjoy non-fiction?
posted by sarcasticah to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
What is your question? Do you want recommendations of nonfiction that's more of a narrative?
posted by sweetkid at 6:01 PM on December 7, 2008

Reading environment is hugely important when tackling a book outwith your comfort zone. If you feel a book might be difficult then removing yourself, at least initially, to a calm and alien environment may help.
posted by fire&wings at 6:05 PM on December 7, 2008

What are you reading when you glaze over? Mathematics texts? Sociology reports? Philosophy?

And what do you hope to get out of it? Entertainment or edification?

At random: If you want something with a bit of a plot, books on wars (That have a beginning, middle, and end) are a good start. Biographies are also not bad, though they tend to flag a bit at the end.
posted by Ookseer at 6:09 PM on December 7, 2008

There's plenty of good narrative nonfiction. Just look for something that tells a story. All the President's Men is a good example, or Soul of a New Machine, or the Taylor Branch books about the civil rights movement. There's a lot of poorly-written nonfiction, just like everything else, and there are plenty of good nonfiction books that are so dry that they are hard to read, even if worthwhile (Guns, Germs, and Steel was a great book but not a particularly fun read, IMO, for instance). Find what you like, then ask for more of that.
posted by rikschell at 6:15 PM on December 7, 2008

Second Ookseer about biographies: the best biographers can scratch a narrative out of a life, or at least put things together in such a way as to make the subject's journey easy to engage.

More broadly, historians frequently impose a narrative structure on their writing. Intellectual historians often find this harder to do, but if you're willing to shell out the $30-50 a good academic monograph is likely to cost you, there are bound to be some real gems on just about any issue of historical interest.

Still, it's worth noting that just like with fiction, a huge percentage of non-fiction is actually crap. Not that the information is necessarily wrong per se, but there are plenty of historians/philosophers/you-name-it whose books are never read anymore because, well, they kind of suck. So just because you pick up a book and it isn't fiction doesn't mean it's worth reading. Just like with fiction, finding the creme de la creme takes a little poking about.

Finally, be aware that reading non-fiction, especially high quality non-fiction, can be slow going. I can polish off a 500 page pulp novel in two days, but I can easily spend a week on a densely-written historical monograph. This is in part because much fiction, especially recent fiction, is written as dialog, which you can generally process as fast as you read it. Extended abstract argument, on the other hand, takes a lot more attention and effort to understand. Granted, my circumstances often require that I finish a serious book in two days rather than the ten I'd really like, but that leads to far less enjoyable reading. If you're reading for pleasure here, as I assume you are, be willing to settle for a slower pace. You'll get more out of it, and you won't feel like you're drinking from a fire hose. Once you start to get into the author's project it can be just as gripping as any fictional narrative.
posted by valkyryn at 6:20 PM on December 7, 2008

Read V.S. Naipaul. He's a novelist but he also writes plenty of nonfiction based on his extensive interactions with people around the world, particularly the Muslim world.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:21 PM on December 7, 2008

Response by poster: The books I've tried are A Peoples' History of the United States, both of Barack Obama's books, things like that.
posted by sarcasticah at 6:32 PM on December 7, 2008

What about Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Much of it read like fiction to me.
posted by hazyspring at 6:36 PM on December 7, 2008

non-fiction books that i love;

with plot: An Army at Dawn, about America's entry into WWII and the campaign in N.Africa.
without: The Ancestors Tale, about evolution and the origins of humanity.
posted by xz at 6:40 PM on December 7, 2008

Well, the field of "non-fiction" is vast and broad but some classics might include...

Ryszard Kapuscinski. Richard Wright. Bill Bryson. Orwell. Rebecca West.

Also all those "narrative non-fiction" guys: Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer (personally, I can't really stand Wolfe, but Mailer is hilarious).

Truman Capote. Autobiography of Malcolm X etc. etc....
posted by scribbler at 6:40 PM on December 7, 2008

This question from the other day might be helpful.
posted by felix grundy at 6:40 PM on December 7, 2008

Best answer: Read anything by Janet Malcolm. She is a really fantastic non-fiction writer.

I very rarely find ANY book impossible to put down, but pretty much everything she writes falls into that category for me.

-- The Journalist and the Murderer
-- The Crime of Sheila McGough
-- The Silent Woman (about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)
-- In the Freud Archives
-- Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession

posted by jayder at 6:41 PM on December 7, 2008

Travelogues like Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad can be good in that they are based on the authors' abilities to paint pictures and situations with words.
posted by not_on_display at 6:42 PM on December 7, 2008

Oh, I second Janet Malcolm. She's very interesting.
posted by sweetkid at 7:13 PM on December 7, 2008

I would recommend anything and evrything by John McPhee, who makes everything he writes about engaging and absorbing. Start with Oranges. 152 pages about oranges and you can't put it down.

See, also, this question, which has some good answers.
posted by qldaddy at 7:23 PM on December 7, 2008

Best answer: Consider this:

You read one non-fiction book about a topic ... then you read another one. Whoah, same reality -- two interpretations. Now, go for three. Do some wikipedia research. Makes you feel like an expert and you weren't even there. Or maybe you were! Comparing texts, you can really figure a writer out by watching which details and issues they dwell on ... or ignore. You will be fascinated at how a single event can have multiple interpretations, many meanings, or infinite significance.

Also, reading about a reality that took place before you existed can be pretty cool. You can even read non-fiction about peoples' predictions of the future. And if you keep your eyes open, you can come back and write your own non-fiction about how foolishly, naively wrong they were.
posted by metajc at 9:11 PM on December 7, 2008

I'm not a big reader of non-fiction except when I need to learn something technical, and then it's usually a matter of skimming and referencing, not really reading cover to cover.

There are some writers who manage to make non-fiction interesting, though. Malcolm Gladwell is an obvious example, although I get the impression when I'm done that he hasn't said anything. There's also narrative fiction like "The Cuckoo's Egg" by Clifford Stoll or anything in the True Crime section - these have a plot and a resolution of some sort, a bit more like fiction.

I agree with valkyryn, though. Non-fiction is slower reading, at least for me. I can read a good novel in one evening, but non-fiction I tend to read a chapter a day at the quickest.
posted by mmoncur at 10:16 PM on December 7, 2008

Best answer: I have this problem too - even with non-fiction books I'm really interested in, I just get so sleepy! I reckon in my case it's got a lot to do with the fact that I used to do my study late at night when I was already tired. So I've kind of conditioned myself to associate non-fiction and sleepiness. Could this be your problem too?

I'm slowly tackling it and it's getting better, so yeah, I think you can learn to enjoy non-fiction. I guess it's important to choose a book that you're really interested in, and then to make sure you're alert but relaxed when you read it. Maybe even read outside in the sun, with an ice-cold drink? Just make sure you're not already a bit bored/grumpy/sleepy or it's harder for your brain to resist the urge to glaze over...

I like Bertrand Russell's books. They're pretty heavy sure, but he writes clearly, which I find very helpful. What about biographies/autobiographies? They're non-fiction but tend to have more of a narrative thread.
posted by Emilyisnow at 11:37 PM on December 7, 2008

Best answer: Why not try history? I view history as pretty similar to fiction, in that it contains a sustained narrative, and in the right hands, it can be a fantastic story. Try Barbara Tuchman, to start. She wrote about the beginning of WWI (The Guns of August), the American Air Force in China during WWII (Stilwell and the American Experience in China), and my favorite, a book about the Hundred Years War, a papal schism, and the black plague (In a Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century).

Also try travelogues. Paul Theroux, loved by some, hated by others, has some pretty great books. If you like travel, trains, and or China, try Riding the Iron Rooster, which is essentially Theroux traveling around China for several months by train.

And, well, I'm a sucker for Anthony Bourdain and his tales of the kitchen. No Reservations was a pretty decent book about the restaurant industry.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:33 AM on December 8, 2008

Well, sarcasticah, if those are the only sorts of things you've tried, I think my previous answer may help you quite a bit.

The Obama books are basically hagiographies. Calling them "non-fiction" is a bit of a stretch, in my book, and the same would go for most of the other pulpish political crap that gets hawked at Barnes & Noble. Even if the contents are decently profound, they're pitched at a lowest common denominator and come with an explicit agenda. In Obama's case, the agenda is "I'm awesome," and other screeds should be just about as easy to peg.

If you can find it in a major bookstore, odds are pretty good that the non-fiction work in question is journalistic at best, i.e. it's been written by someone who is an interested amateur, not a serious scholar. This increases the audience because the result will be more accessible, but decreases the quality because the author 1) isn't going to approach the subject with anything approaching academic rigor, and 2) frequently doesn't actually know anything about the literature on the subject.

On the other hand, academic works aren't problem-free either. Zinn is a notorious academic crank. A lot of people like what he has to say, a lot don't, but both would agree that unless you were pretty strongly versed in the material to which he is responding, you're going to miss a lot of what's going on. This would not help you enjoy the work.

I think a good way of going about this would be to decide what you are interested in reading about, then doing a little googlefu to find out which books have been the most influential. Look for which works get cited the most by other authors on GoogleBooks, etc. Start with those and see where it takes you. But just because a book is a bestseller has nothing to do with 1) whether it's worth a damn, or 2) whether or not it will interest you. There's nothing wrong with this. Explore your own preferences.
posted by valkyryn at 3:47 AM on December 8, 2008

It would help if you mentioned a few things that interest you about the world. Choosing non-fiction about subjects that interest you is the first step. Give us some help and you'll get better answers.
posted by mediareport at 7:35 AM on December 8, 2008

Best answer: History is really awesome, especially if you find an interesting context.

So, I wanted to read about some Chicago history, so I picked up "Devil in the White City". It has history about the Chicago World's Fair in the late 1800s, but tells it within a dual storyline of the fair versus a serial killer doing his business at the same time. It was fascinating.

I also really appreciated the research and history elements in "Stiff: The curious lives of human cadavers." And not only was the subject interesting because I know very little about scientific research on human cadavers, it was also hilarious. Really.
posted by santojulieta at 1:20 PM on December 8, 2008

To further santojulieta's suggestion about Chicago, yet sticking with the biography idea, try Boss, by the late Mike Royko. It's a fascinating, very readable, and not overly long book about the first Mayor Richard Daly, and how he pretty much owned Chicago, through patronage, the Democratic Machine, and outright corruption. Very well written.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:16 PM on December 8, 2008

I'm another with the same problem, i find i can never finish a non-fiction book, i've tried reading steven pinker, richard dawkins, books like no logo and fast food nation and i think the problem is that after the author has explained their argument or theory the rest of the book is just evidence to support it and them reiterating and there's only so much of the same thing i can take. The only non-fiction book i ever got all the way through was Helter-skelter by Vincent Bugliosi who was the prosecution lawyer on the manson case, dam good read.
posted by chelegonian at 3:10 PM on December 17, 2008

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