The Case for Reading More Non-Fiction

Discussion Post Stars

I seldom see non-fiction reviews in my feed and when we post non-fiction reviews here on the blog, they are some of our least-viewed posts.  However, non-fiction is often very readable and very accessible, not at all like reading a textbook for class!  Furthermore, there are plenty of reasons why adding some non-fiction to your reading list could be immensely valuable to you.

Support your arguments with evidence.

It’s not enough to make a claim.  You have to be able to demonstrate 1) that the claim is true, and 2) why the claim is important.  So you can talk all day about your views on how the education system works or how publishing works or ought to work–but without solid facts to bolster your authority and show you’ve done the research, you won’t be very convincing.  Throw in some statistics, some data, some evidence and now you have an argument people will be willing to listen to.

Theorize your own work and create deeper and more complex arguments.

No matter what your field is or where your interests lie, it can always pay to examine them closely and to ask questions about what you are doing and why.  That is, you might ask yourself how far a scientist can go with research before it becomes unethical.  You might ask whether the rights of the individuals or the rights of the group should take precedence. You might wonder what the effect is of using “he or she” instead of “he” or “they” instead of “he or she.”  Read some non-fiction that addresses the values of your field, theorizes the work performed in it, or questions the current paradigm.  Your own work will be richer because you will have the tools and the words to engage with the ideas you already have.

Understand the political, social, and historical contexts out of which texts arise and be able to critique them in an informed manner.

Can Chaucer’s work be “unfeminist” if feminism wasn’t yet a concept when he was writing?  How racist is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work?  How racist were Abraham Lincoln’s views, for that matter?  Experts in the fields typically examine texts from a perspective that acknowledges the contexts out of which they arise.  Learn to speak their language and you add to your own authority.

Understand the values of literary studies and the ways in which Experts Criticize Literature.

Again, by learning the values of a field you add to your own credibility when speaking on related matters.  Reach some current criticism to get an idea of where the field currently is.  You don’t want to be citing a critic from the 1980s without realizing that others theorized the field after him and added to the conversation–not if you want to be taken seriously!  You can also read literary criticism to get an idea of what kinds of arguments literary professionals make and how they make them.  That is, you can learn to make complex arguments based in textual evidence–arguments that go beyond your emotional reactions as a reader or summarization of the plot.

Create realistic worlds for your fiction.

If you’re writing historical fiction you will obviously want to do research to make your world believable.  But most novelists will end up having to read nonfiction to create a credible world.  Does your fantasy book include mages who work with fabric or rocks or sea creatures?  You’ll probably have to research those things because even fantasy worlds must have some resemblance to reality if readers are to find them believable.  You don’t want to lose readers because they’re distracted from the plot by wondering why your mage is so ignorant about geology, or why your female protagonist is acting very oddly for a lady from  eighteenth-century England.

Become a more interesting conversationalist.

The more you read, the more you have to offer during those awkward office parties or family get-togethers.  Prevent yourself from being on the outside of the conversation by storing up a reservoir of interesting facts and pertinent knowledge.  In fact, even if you just skim the news headlines before you go out, you can probably insert yourself into the conversation–but it’s always better to be prepared with more information should your audience become intrigued by what you said!

Why do you read non-fiction?  What are some of your recommendations?

Krysta 64

16 thoughts on “The Case for Reading More Non-Fiction

  1. The Reading Bug says:

    if you are looking for some non-fiction that will really shake up how you look at the world, try anything by Jared Diamond. Hard to classify – part history, part sociology, part other stuff! – it is easy to read, well, not hard, anyway, and I have found myself quoting his ideas for years since I first read his Guns Germs and Steel for example.


  2. xtine says:

    I’m really glad you brought up nonfiction because it’s somewhat of a recent passion of mine. Fiction will always be close to my heart, but nonfiction is such a great way to feed the brain. This year, I’ve challenged myself to read 12 nonfiction books (although I’m already at 3, so maybe I should shoot for 15!).

    We live in a society that’s instant gratification, but reading a nonfiction book takes time and dedication – which means it’s even more important. Personally, I read nonfiction for many of the reason you listed. Mostly, I read nonfiction because it’s my job to educate myself. How can I have an accurate view of current events if I don’t have a historical context? What am I basing my politics on if I’m not constantly educating (and re-educating) myself on the arguments that are out there?

    Plus – nerd alert – learning stuff is fun!


      • xtine says:

        I decided on 12 nonfiction books a year because I figured 1 a month is a reasonable goal, but it depends how many books a month you typically read. I also find it helpful to read fiction and nonfiction at the same time. I’m not always mentally ‘here’ enough to get into anything heavy, so it helps to have backup.


  3. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    Yesss I love non-fiction! Especially essay-type books that focus on gender, feminism, and that kind of stuff!


  4. Bionic Book Worm says:

    I really enjoyed Little Princes by Conor Grennan. It was about his journey to volunteer at a children’s home in Nepal. It turned out that all these children weren’t really orphans but had been sold by their parents with the false pretences that they would be kept safe from the civil unrest in the area. The men who ‘bought’ the children would then dump them off at these homes. It was a really touching story! I have a list of my top 5 non fiction that may have some other recommendations for you


  5. sophiethestark says:

    Great post, once again 🙂 I do have to admit I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but I do have some examples on my TBR. Mostly recommendations, though. I don’t actively seek this type of books out and I know I should because they are incredibly vital to any reader’s growth.
    However, reading for me acts as a pleasurable/relaxing activity and I find that fiction just works better for that. Not to say I won’t read non-fiction but I still have to force myself to do it sometimes. Hopefully, it will come more naturally to me in the future.


  6. looloolooweez says:

    Hooray for nonfiction! You’re right, nonfiction reviews/discussions just don’t seem as common or popular in the book blogosphere — although I’ve been seeing a lot more in the way of political and cultural reviews/recs recently because of certain crazy current events.

    My guess is that many people are intimidated by nonfiction or think it’s all dry academic type stuff. Which is a shame, because there’s a ton of narrative, humorous, etc. nonfic out there that they would probably actually enjoy!

    I’ll be signing up for Doing Dewey’s ‘Women in Science History’ event this month, combining 2 of my favorite nonfic subjects — women’s history and science!


    • Krysta says:

      That’s true. And I have read some admittedly dry nonfiction. But there are plenty of readable books out there, too. I think, for me, the main reason I don’t read more nonfiction right now is that the time commitment seems greater. It’s easier to breeze through a novel, usually, than for me to engage with a work of nonfiction.

      That sounds like an incredibly fun event!


  7. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    My primary reason for reading non-fiction is simply to learn more about a topic I’m interested in, though this often intersects with a number of your reasons. Even though I’m often adding non-fiction to my TBR, I choose fiction most frequently because reading for me is often (as Sophie put it above) “a pleasurable/relaxing activity” and fiction usually feels more comfortable for that. Lately my non-fiction reading has to do with seafaring expeditions and surviving extreme situations. I recommend 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin or In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick.


  8. DoingDewey says:

    Great post! Obviously, I love nonfiction and think it’s very worthwhile, but I would have come up with a very different list of reasons to read it. Personally, I love to learn, but don’t usually think of that learning as connected to my reviews or my ability to write a smart critique of a good book. I think you’re right that it could help with that though!


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