What makes a nonfiction favorite?

Posted November 19, 2017 by Lory in discussions / 40 Comments

This week’s topic for Nonfiction November, hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey, is Nonfiction Favorites:

We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.

Fascinating facts

This may seem ultra-obvious, but when I read nonfiction I want to learn interesting things. I’m not obligated by my job or studies to do this, so any topic will do as long as the author brings out something relevant, unusual, surprising, beautiful, or mind-blowing about it. My favorite books leave me with a life-enhancing sense of wonder and amazement.

Good storytelling

I’m admittedly mainly a fiction reader, so in order to hold my attention and help me retain information, it’s helpful to tell me a story. Not every subject is suited to this method, but the ones that do lend themselves to storytelling are the most likely to become my favorites.

A minimum of speculation

On the other hand, there’s a danger that when the facts are thin on the ground the author will fill them in by speculating about what might have been. It annoys me to read lengthy passages discussing the possible color of somebody’s hair, or postulating about piss freezing in the chamber pots on a particular morning. Even worse is inventing incidents or characters without identifying them as such to the reader. If you don’t know something, say so…and if you want to indulge your imagination, write a novel!

My favorite nonfiction is firmly based in reality, even if that means the book has to be very short.

Well-crafted language (but skip the flowers)

Many nonfiction writers are journalists or academics, whose writing style may be serviceable at best. This is fine for conveying information, but my favorite nonfiction books will have phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that resound with a distinctive voice. The danger is that some writers seem to be trying too hard and end up writing terribly purple prose, which is also irritating. Writing can be simple and clear, but still artistically formed, and that’s what I really gravitate towards in nonfiction.

An uplifting spirit

Some books are important to read, but depressing. I’m grateful that they exist, but unlikely to count them as my favorites. I will take more to my heart the books that leave me with some hope, comfort, or inspiration to carry me into the future, even when (or especially when) they grapple with tough subjects like injustice, war, and death.

Here are some of my favorite nonfiction titles that I’ve read since I started blogging:

What are your favorites, and what criteria help you to select them?

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40 responses to “What makes a nonfiction favorite?

    • Authors who can weave a compelling story without making things up are the best. I thought In the Kingdom of Ice was particularly excellent in this.

  1. Ren

    “On the other hand, there’s a danger that when the facts are thin on the ground the author will fill them in by speculating about what might have been. It annoys me to read lengthy passages discussing the possible color of somebody’s hair, or postulating about piss freezing in the chamber pots on a particular morning.” I so agree! (and this is hilarious!) It drives me crazy when nonfiction writers do that. I love anything that’s good narrative nonfiction, well-crafted storytelling and as you said, no purple prose.

    I’ve been meaning to get around to Just Mercy forever, glad to see it’s one of your favorites. Excellent post!

    • Ugh, the long run-on speculation passages irritate me so much. I’m glad I’m not the only one. (Though not everyone seems bothered by it, as the particular books I’m thinking of have been widely acclaimed.)

      I also took a long time to read Just Mercy after seeing it recommended by umpteen people, but was so glad when I finally did.

  2. >A minimum of speculation

    Yes! Just the facts, please. Or, a good discussion about why a theory does or doesn’t work. Which I suppose boils back down to the facts…

    • Yes, it’s fine to say when something is not known or must be theorized about…as long as it doesn’t serve merely as page filler. I appreciate honesty in a nonfiction book.

  3. This is a very interesting post. I am putting together a post about my all time favorite books and there are a couple of non – fiction books included. I like your criteria for what makes a non – fiction book favorites. For myself, the really great non – fiction books in some ways effected my worldview.

  4. As Keats said,“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all | Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
    Essentially that’s what I look forward to in fiction and in non-fiction. I don’t mind speculation so long as it’s a genuine search for truth and it’s beautifully argued.

    But ‘factual’ works that build their house on sand — where ‘could’ and ‘possibly’ morph into unfounded certainty and ‘probably’ — have me figuratively gnashing my teeth.

    • Me too. I can sympathize with the dilemma of trying to cover a person or topic about which very little is known, but in that case maybe a whole book is not the thing to write.

  5. Thank you for a really interesting article:) I don’t read non-fiction often enough and nailing exactly what I do like and dislike about the genre would be a good step forward.

    • This event is what really got me excited about reading nonfiction four years ago. The enthusiastic reviews from other bloggers were so inspiring and pointed me toward several of these favorites. I hope you do find some nonfiction to love because there’s so much good stuff out there.

  6. When I’m reading nonfiction, I usually look for the emotional impact. If it’s not that, say, if it’s a non-emotional content story, then I’m looking for interesting facts, hopefully presented in a playful manner. But I haven’t read much nonfiction yet, only started this year basically, so you could say, I’m still forming my tastes 😀
    Definitely true about the writing! And I would agree on being inspiring 🙂 isn’t that the general reason we read real stories, eh?
    I guess I would recommend The Radium Girls for nonfiction 🙂 although I’ve read other good ones, but that one was just the complete winner for me.
    Great post 🙂

    • Emotional impact makes a book stand out for me too — great point!

      I’ve seen The Radium Girls raved about everywhere this year. Definitely one to check out.

  7. Since my nonfiction tends to be mostly historical, I want just the facts. Please, no speculation about what someone might have been feeling or thinking, and worse, presenting those feelings and thoughts as facts. I also love obscure facts in nonfiction. Those make for the best discussion starters (or stoppers, depending on what situation you find yourself in). In the Kingdom of Ice is high on my list of NF to read. Maybe in 2018…

    • I think sometimes speculation (or let’s say theorizing) has its place, but I can’t stand it when it’s applied to irrelevancies for no apparent reason. However, I can appreciate that some readers want to stick to known facts. Too bad it’s often not apparent how much of a “nonfiction” book is actually going to be fiction, before you start reading.

  8. Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh is my all time favourite non-fiction and high up on the total list too. Exciting story, great writing and enough math to excite a young math nerd. How the universe got its spots by Janna Levn was a similar treat.

    I also enjoy well-written non-fiction from the Arctic or Antarctic region. The worst journey in the world by Aspley Cherry-Garrard and The Expedition by Bea Uusma are some other favourites.

    • I never thought I would find a book about Arctic exploration so fascinating. That’s the kind of wonderful discovery one can make in reading nonfiction.

  9. Lory, I have to agree about the fact that even though life and history are often sad or depressing, I do like to be left with some hope, comfort or inspiration by the end of the book!

    • Yes – we need something to keep us going through the hard times, even as we appreciate learning about the difficult things in life.

  10. Great list of things that make you love nonfiction! I particularly like the distinction between good storytelling and fun facts. I’m always excited when I find a book that does both – telling a story in narrative form with fun trivia I just want to share with people sprinkled throughout. And I’m definitely with you on preferring a book that doesn’t speculate without warning the reader! I don’t think that’s acceptable in nonfiction.

  11. I completely understand what you mean about wanting an uplifting ending but one of my biggest pet peeves is when writers through in an uplifting end just for the sake of not ending on a downer. If it’s unrealistic, it bugs me.

    Totally with you on the minimal speculation thing too. That drives me nuts when they just try to fill in the blanks with opinion or hearsay.

    • That’s so true about tacking on an unrealistically optimistic ending. Honesty and lack of manipulation are to be prized in nonfiction.

  12. Telling nonfiction in a way that feels like fiction is a big factor for me. Otherwise, Fascinating facts are also high on the list – I love learning new things!

    I absolutely love the cover of The Book of Joy. 🙂

  13. I like your point about a minimum of speculation – that is something I value in all non-fiction books. Non-fiction books that make my all-time favourites lists (includes fiction) have good storytelling, like you described, and are often also about something close to personal interests. I especially like non-fiction books that open my eyes up to a new perspective, but those don’t necessarily turn out to be favourites (like Strangers in Their Own Land).

    • Personal interests can be a big draw. I tend to like books about literary subjects, even though I didn’t list many of those above.

  14. Definitely good storytelling. Like you, I’m mainly a fiction reader so I want a nonfiction book to keep me just as interested. Great list!

  15. Oh, man! Your favorites are some of my favorites, too! I both read and listened to Just Mercy; what a fantastic read. Being Mortal, thanks to my job, is both necessary and highly relatable. Like you, I definitely need a good story; it makes all the difference!

  16. I concur with all of your specifications, and now I really want to read all of the books on your list. Some of my NF favorites are Winterdance, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Rocket Boys, Last Chance to See, Ghost Map, The Year of Living Biblically, and The Stranger in the Woods.

    • Oh yes, I have read The Spirit Catches You… and it was excellent, but it was before I started blogging so I forgot about it. And now you’ve added to my TBR even more!

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