Nonfiction November: Choosing Nonfiction


Now that Witch Week is over, it’s time to turn to another favorite event that takes place at this time of year: Nonfiction November! This week’s question, posed by Rachel of Hibernator’s Library, is:

Choosing Nonfiction: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

I tend to gravitate toward books that are similar to fiction: memoirs, narrative nonfiction, history that is told through the lives of individuals. Since I’m no longer in school, I’m not drawn to “textbook”-type expositions of material, but I do love learning new things through nonfiction. That’s not to say I won’t choose any books that are not told through personal narrative, but they do account for a fairly small percentage of my total reading.

In terms of writing style, I love it when the writer has an individual voice and some sense for the artistry of language, rather than a dry, pedantic way of writing. However, I have put down books that were too flowery and in love with their own eloquence. In nonfiction, there is a topic to be focused on, and the writing style should serve that rather than being an end in itself.

An attractive cover never hurts, of course — it might get me to pick up a book, but it’s the contents that will keep me reading.

Here are some of my favorites from this year, representing some of my favorite topics. What are yours?





Social Justice











36 thoughts on “Nonfiction November: Choosing Nonfiction

    1. Sometimes the topic warrants it, but mostly it means the author is covering up for a lack of actual information. I wish they would just write a novel in that case.


    1. I’m so grateful for writers like Gawande who can make medicine and science understandable to me. There’s so much fascinating and important material there.


  1. Like you, I like books that flow like a novel, and I also don’t care for over flowery writing. I feel sometimes like the author is trying to hard to show their genius. I would be curious about any of the books you’ve shown. particularly The House by the Lake and Just Mercy.


  2. There’s nothing worse than trying to get through flowery non-fiction! I think this is one of the reasons why there are so many people that think they don’t like non-fiction – it’s a real challenge to get it right! It’s easy to default to a textbook sounding voice but nothing makes my eyes glaze over faster.

    I’ve been avoiding Being Mortal since it came out. Reading about illness and disease feels like I’m opening the door to that in my own life and it’s always made me super uncomfortable. I know it’s completely irrational but here we are.


    1. That’s what I thought, but I pushed myself to read some “scary” books this year including that one. It turned out to be so beautifully written and compelling I flew through it.


  3. I am definitely more attracted to science books and self help then I am to memoirs. I have read more memoirs then anything else though. I love that you listed some of your favorites here. Great post!


  4. A really intriguing topic, Lory, and I was fascinated to see what your personal choices were. I found answering these questions for myself rather more complex than I had first supposed. What am I looking for when I pick up a nonfiction book? Hard to say when I glance at the range of nonfiction on my shelves, and as for a particular writing style that works for me, anything that doesn’t offend my sensibilities — grammar, spelling, poor editing, non sequiturs, lazy arguments — will suit!

    The easiest thing for me was to look at what I’ve reviewed this last year (given 1. that I’d made fiction a priority this year, and 2. I’d reposted two old NF reviews). The subjects ranged from castaways in early modern history to the natural history of rooks, ravens and other corvids, and from an edited selection of Austen letters to a collection of essays on the art of fiction. I also reposted two reviews after starting a read of related titles, one on archaeopteryx fossils and the other an early 20th-century dictionary of classical music. The range of writing styles varied as much as the subjects themselves! So, no patterns emerging there.

    As for whether the title or cover influences me (I’m assuming these are alternatives rather than a combo) I’d definitely go with the title, that being an indication of the subject matter — these books ranged from recent paperbacks to musty hardbacks with no dust cover. Only one attracted me by the cover alone, and that was because this edition’s design was more attractive than the alternative, and I wanted to read more about ravens anyway.


    1. I’d be interested in exploring some more different types of nonfiction in the coming year. Collections of letters and essays have not been on my reading radar lately, for example, and I’m sure there are some interesting choices there.


  5. I feel rather the same. Memoirs/biographies and also history books. History can be a bit dry but there are some great ones out there that you just fly through – my favourite type. I *can* be drawn by the cover but mostly it’ll be the summary that decides it. Of those I’ve read this year I’d say Climbing Days, The Outrun and my current read, Reckoning, are my favourites.


    1. History written by a good storyteller can be a great read. It gets tricky if they start to weave their own inventions into the narrative though.


  6. I really want to read both Just Mercy and Being Mortal – I just think I need to be in the right frame of mind. I even had Just Mercy from the library but my mood wasn’t going to do it justice. I agree with you though I want to learn from NF but I don’t want to always feel like I’m being actively taught. I want well written books that I just want to eat up the facts. The House by the Lake sounds fantastic too – on my list it goes!


    1. If it helps at all, even though it was a difficult subject Just Mercy also had me in awe of the goodness of some human beings. Once you jump in I think you might find it hard to stop reading.


  7. Love the cover of Unearthed–that is definitely a pick me up and buy me cover, for me anyway.

    I really enjoyed The Poisoner’s Handbook–fascinating book, both the science and the social history.


  8. I remember putting The Poisoner’s Handbook onto my wishlist years ago but I don’t think it ever came out in the UK. It seems the non-fiction markets can be kept quite separate.


    1. I suppose they pick the titles that they think have the most cross-Atlantic appeal. Perhaps this one seemed too specialized — but it did have a lot of fascinating information.


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