Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction.
Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel?
If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling?
Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques?
What are your favourite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction?
And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?
When I first saw this week’s question, my first reaction was ‘uh-oh’! But then I remembered a conversation that Mr Books and I had a few weeks ago about this exact same topic.
He had just finished reading The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman and was raving about how it read like a thriller more than a book about science, which led us to discuss the merits of narrative non-fiction.
We agreed that good narrative non-fiction consisted of sound research mixed with compelling character development and a pleasing story arc.
Since that discussion I have qualified my view of narrative non-fiction to exclude memoirs or biographies. Memoirs and biographies, being the story (or part thereof) of someone’s life are by definition already a narrative. Choices are made about what facts to include or not and it’s all about interpretation, memory and personal agenda. Even those drier than dust bio’s that include absolutely every single detail, attempt to take the reader on a journey.
A fictionalised account of someone’s life (like the books Paula McLain writes about Hemingway and his wives) is what I call fictionalised history. It’s based on real life events, with real life people, but conversations have been imagined and the timeline altered to assist the storytelling. Facts and fiction are blurred. I do enjoy these books at times, but often feel frustrated about not knowing which bits are real and which bits aren’t.
Perhaps I’m splitting hairs?
Narrative non-fiction, for me, is when a non-fiction book that could be presented as dry statements of fact, with analysis, interpretation and commentary like a textbook or reference book, is instead presented in a story-like format. The facts and figures are revealed by means of anecdotes, sketches or a good old fashion yarn. Often the author inserts themselves into the story so that we can see the journey that their research took them on.
All kinds of non-fiction books can take a narrative turn. But it’s the quality of the writing that turns them into one of my favourites. Over the years my picks have been:
Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Bryson combines history, geography and the personal in most of his books. This one is my favourite.
Tragedy and its aftermath
Done with sympathy, compassion and journalistic research, the best examples of this method are moving, informative and enlightening.
Life, death and our health in between
Science as story.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
When told as a story, these atrocities can be a little easier to digest.
Anything by Michael Wood.
During the 90’s Wood made several BBC series featuring various historical events or big names like Alexander the Great, the Trojan War and the Conquistadors. Each series came with it’s own book.
They were immensely readable, fast paced and usually included Wood’s own journey in these famous footsteps.
Biography mixed with science, geography or historical events
The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester
Cooking with extras
Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell
When a cook book is more than just recipes.
I’m a sucker for a good foodie books – they usually combine history, geography, science and a great story.
My TBR pile is bursting with plenty of narrative non-fiction. The hard part is deciding which one to read next.
The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China by by Huan Hsu
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
The Brother Gardeners: A Generation of Gentlemen Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf
The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
Have you read any of these?