I am running behind but determined to continue with NonFiction November! This week’s assignment is:
Week 4: (Nov. 19 to 23) – Reads Like Fiction (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction): 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 favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?
The short answer: YES. But, not necessarily. Allow me to elaborate.
The Short Answer
First, what does “reads like a novel” mean to me? For me to enjoy a novel I like the story to build before me. I need character development, growth, change, internal or external conflict (preferably both) and momentum. And, for nonfiction I don’t think my criteria is all that different except I put a lot more emphasis on momentum in nonfiction than I do when I read a novel. Some of my favorite nonfiction books read like novels to me because they capture my imagination and send me on a journey. In my opinion, this is the escapism quality of fiction.
My favorite Nonfiction that reads like Fiction.
The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum has separate chapters for each of the poisons. But, in each she introduces you to a problem, a murder, or a group of individuals that grab your attention. She gives you characters. And, as the science identifies the poisons we are off on a journey, a race against time, to stop the people from being exposed to the newly identified substance. I always say that this book reads like a procedural crime drama. Which is why I recommend it every single time.
Meanwhile, there are a number of other fine books about poisons that I have read and not one of the them pulled me in or stuck with me the way The Poisoner’s Handbook has for all of these years. I try at all costs to avoid negative reviews here at SilverButtonBooks so I won’t mention them but just know, you have seen them in bookstores and non of them read as well as this gem.
Messy by Tim Harford is another fantastic book that uses character driven or news worthy anecdotes to draw you into a problem. Then, the solution is delivered via information, statistics and science in a way that solves said problem. Messy was a fast paced read that used jumping off points like, plane crashes, man made eradication of nature and terrible situations to show how disorder can positively transform our lives.
Messy reads less like a novel and more like a podcast. But each chapter blends seamlessly into the next and the sum total of the book ends up feeling like a fantastic television show.
Ask an Astronaut by Tim Peake reads like an epistolary novel. Much like Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments or Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple, Tim responds to written questions. But it is how he answers the questions that takes this NonFiction book from Dear Abby format to a back and forth between the famous astronaut and the general public. He organized the book like a memoire but gives you the action, adventure, terrifying facts and love of space in his answers. I will NEVER go to space but Tim convinced me why he did.
Speaking of Celebrity Memoirs…
Most of the celebrity memoirs that I have enjoyed through the years also read like well written fiction. They certainly have a character-driven feel, they often show us personal growth despite internal and external conflict and they are (if well written) fast paced. I think that is why they are easily accessible to the novel loving readers out there. Some of my favorites include:
Homey Don’t Play That, The Story of In Living Color and the Black Comedy Revolution by David Peisner. Peisner sets the stage for the enormous success of In Living Color with the history of Black Comedy but keeps the momentum up through the interweaving stories of the cast members and all those involved with the rise and fall of this hilarious show.
Bossypants by Tina Fey might be the celebrity memoire that everyone has read but there is a reason for this. Fey’s ability to tell her childhood stories (including how she got that scar) and weave her personal and professional stories together is just simply fun to read. But, at a closer look, it is a fantastic look at the rise of female driven comedies.
So…That Happened by Jon Cryer is my new favorite celebrity memoire. I just listened to it as an audiobook and it was like driving around with a friend for nine hours. He hits all of the gossipy checkmarks without becoming mean or spiteful and I loved him for it. It was also a great story about how a broadway kid experienced movie making and television for the last three decades.
Canada by Mike Myers is another favorite of mine. My giant crush on all things Canadian lead me to this book which is part celebrity memoire and part history of Canada. I would not only recommend the book but also the audiobook for the wonderful accents and explanations by Mr. Myers himself.
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell will always be highly recommended by me. The comedian (who was unknown to me before this book) delivers his own celebrity memoirs but with the added relevance of the ongoing issues for Black people in America.
To further elaborate…
Does good nonfiction need to read like a novel? No. But, it makes it more fun, easier to consume and far easier to recommend. I have read many other NonFiction books that are so far from a novel they may as well be a textbook but loved them all the same. So, while I will still read a nonfiction book that is clearly not novel-like authors who write nonfiction as though it is to be enjoyed will always be appreciated for their efforts.
Tell me, please!
Do you think good Nonfiction reads like a novel?
The Poisoner’s Handbook sounds good
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It is an absolute favorite of mine!
“emphasis on momentum” is such an interesting quality to highlight in nonfiction! It’s also interesting that you bring up the idea of escapism, because that’s something people often mention to me about why they prefer fiction but honestly, nonfiction can do exactly the same and I definitely use it as escapism. Wonderfully thoughtful take on this topic, I’m so glad to read your thoughts on it!
You’ve definitely convinced me to move up The Poisoner’s Handbook, I love the way you describe it. I’m really interested in W. Kamau Bell’s book, and Bossypants is one of my favorites. I also thought that it was so light and fun to read but there are some deep and meaningful messages there. I really got a lot from it.
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Coming from you this is all high praise indeed! I agree that nonfiction can absolutely be escapism but I think many people imagine we are sitting around reading old textbooks. I would really love to know your thoughts on The Poisoner’s Handbook – hopefully I haven’t oversold it!
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I get the same impression, so many people seem to still somehow think that’s what nonfiction mostly is. I don’t even know how it’s possible to still think that…it just encompasses so much. And don’t worry, you didn’t oversell it – I’d actually bought it from one of those ebook deal emails awhile back and then just was never in the mood for it. You totally motivated me though, I’m excited for it now!
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