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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


Why Do You Read Nonfiction?

I met with a publisher yesterday and we were talking about the matter of databases and schools that are cutting back — or even eliminating — buying nonfiction books. As we spoke I realized that, to me, nonfiction reading is pleasure reading — nearly always. Even the material is dense, hard, poorly written, I feel excited at the thought that I cam going to learn something, gain some knowledge, be better informed than I was before I started the book Others at the table spoke about the pleasures they get from nonfiction — a great story, a person they find fascinating or come to care about, engaging line by line writing, fabulous photos. And then it hit me — we so rarely talk about Nonfiction in terms of pleasure. We are always making a case for utility — hey, notice us, we could help you! But why? How about, Hey, notice us, we offer you fun, excitement, engagement, thrills, inights-that-could-change-your-world.
        So I ask all of you — what pleasures do you get out of reading Nonfiction? What do you look forward to? What do you remember? Give us a passage, a sentence, a phrase, a title. And in a library, how about having a list posted — The Pleasures of Nonfiction — and ask kids, librarians, teachers, to write down anything — from a photo of a tarantula to an opening chess move to advice about how to pick the right pet to a story about George Washington — that you really enjoyed reading.I wonder what will be on that list?


  1. DEBRA HANSON says:

    Marc – that is a great idea for the library. I will be trying it out soon. You know, as soon as I read this, I realized how much during the past year I’ve talked to people about how BOYS need and love non-fiction, but I rarely talk about my own love for non-fiction. I choose non-fiction probably 90% of the time for my own pleasure reading. I love learning, and non-fiction always helps me to feel more knowledgeable, more capable, more able to help others. But it also satisfies my sense of wonder about the world, helps me understand people, places, & cultures, and helps me learn how to DO things. Readng non-fiction sometimes changes how I view the world. I always look forward to having an author challenge my assumptions and make me think differently or more deeply about a topic. Your books Race and Unsettled are both are great examples of that.

  2. Thanks — and that is a great list — learning, how to, sense of wonder, aid to understanding, change in perspective. You might have headings on poster — just to remind people that How to Draw a Horse is NF, just as the Girl Scout handbook is — the first shift is exactly what you went through, remembering the pleasures NF brings.

  3. Jim Whiting says:

    I’ve always read NF for fun, so writing it is a natural outgrowth of my life experience.
    “Useful for reports” is the single most common phrase used in reviews in SLJ and elsewhere. I think a number of reviewers begin with the utility angle and frame what they say in those terms, overlooking the fun and fascination that so much of NF provides.

  4. Carolyn Foote says:

    I remember the delights of High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver, the amusement of Year of LIving Biblically, the suspense of Devil in the White City, the unusual year in Plenty, and the curiosity inspired by all of those books.

    Who knew the real world could be so interesting?

  5. I think “useful for reports” may fade as the databases fill that role. I just got a private email from a librarian in training who thought she did not like NF because she dislikes biography and autobiography — but when she looked at her bookshelves, 90% of the books were NF — on her passion: astronomy. Maybe we should use Carolyn’s phrase: Who Knew the Real World Could Be So Interesting? Who? People who read NF, that’s who.

  6. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    That’s certainly how I approach my writing. For me, if your jaw doesn’t drop or you don’t laugh at least once when you’re reading a NF book, then an opportunity for joyous fascination has been lost.

  7. I have always enjoyed celebrity memoirs and rock ‘n roll history. Trash? Maybe. Pleasure reading? Nothing but. I can’t wait to read Kathy Griffin’s book…loved John Lennon’s bio by Philip Norman…and don’t get me started on The Dirt, all about Motley Crue.

    If kids who don’t usually read are inspired to pick up a book about Jonas Brother or Miley Cyrus, I say it’s a start.

  8. Jen: no reason to see those choices as trash, any more than Chick Lit novels are trash — everyones likes an easy read. Why shouldn’t NF have its page turners, just as fiction does? I love reading sports rumors — who might be traded?

  9. Julie Larios says:

    For me, the pleasure of non-fiction comes when I’m reminded of what Lawrence Weschler recently dubbed “convergences” – the strange web of similarities between two things that previously appeared to be separate. For Weschler, in EVERYTHING THAT RISES, it was often a painting from centuries ago converging with a photo he saw in the newspaper. For Steven Johnson, in GHOST MAP’s exploration of the cholera epidemic in London in 1854, it was people gathering around a water pump in Soho in 1854 converging with today’s urban coffee-house culture. Hearing the word “obsession” and understanding it as the common thread between tulip mania in the 1600’s and two cold-blooded Kansas killers in the 1960’s – that’s why I read non-fiction. Absolutely for the pleasure of convergences, not for information. And that’s how I talk with my writing students about it – I remind them that kids want to feel and understand the same connections – across time, across cultures, and across disciplines. That’s what left my jaw hanging open when I was a kid reading non-fiction, and I think kids still feel those goosebumps today.

  10. Julie:

    I like your description. I’d only add that, to me, there is a second layer to convergencies and that is explanations — I want the engineering of things — how a dust storm thousands of years ago wiped out a town causing a shift in power leading to the emergence of a new trading state which led to the discovery of X.

  11. Julie Larios says:

    Absolutely right, Marc – it’s like weaving, with explanation/structure as warp and convergence/patterns as weft.

  12. yes