When I was in a bookshop at Union Square a guy came up to me out of the blue and asked whether I preferred reading fiction or nonfiction. When I told him I preferred fiction he asked why.
‘Because,’ I said. ‘Nonfiction is all about information and I think that kind of content is easier to access by other means than the lessons learned from fiction. Fiction is full of the truths of the human condition—dissected and exposed so it almost feels as if what’s being written is a reflection of our inner selves.’
He told me it was a good answer and I thought it was too—given I had been put on the spot. But when I left the bookshop and began to really think about it, I realised what I said was quite arrogant—to say that one kind of writing is more enriching than another—who did I think I was? Because what we get from something all depends on who we are and what we have experienced (always reading and interpreting meaning through the lens of our own experience) and by saying what I did I was criticising a whole realm of people who would choose to read, or indeed write nonfiction over fiction—my own husband included.
So I decided I was going to try and start appreciating nonfiction more and here are five non-boring, nonfiction books I’ve read and learned a lot from just recently.
#1 On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
We recently lost this brilliant man from our Earth and therefore I decided to list one of his books first. There are so many of his works I could have chosen but I particularly enjoyed this one because it delves into the psychology of writing. We see how much writing meant to this great mind, his processes and indeed his admiration (and friendship) with other writers such as poet, Thomas Gunn and how, from them he learnt about creative originality.
“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.”'The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life.' Oliver Sacks Click To Tweet
I also love this quote because it pinpoints that precise moment when we as writers are gripped, almost by a fever to expel our stories:
“The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks. It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand. And I often transcribe quotations I like, writing or typing them on pieces of brightly colored paper and pinning them to a bulletin board.”
SEE ALSO: Resources
#2 A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon
This book is all about human emotion and biological psychology, examining love by combining both scientific evidence as well as exploring human connection through the lens of cultural perspective. It is actually very interesting, given my original response to the question about fiction and nonfiction in the bookshop because the book aims to reconcile both science and humanistic enquiry into the phenomenon of love.
“If empiricism is barren and incomplete, while impressionistic guesswork leads anywhere and everywhere, what hope can there be of arriving at a workable understanding of the human heart? In the words of Vladimir Nabokov, there can be no science without fancy and no art without facts. Love emanates from the brain; the brain is physical, and thus as fit a subject for scientific discourse as cucumbers or chemistry. But love unavoidably partakes of the personal and the subjective, and so we cannot place it in the killing jar and pin its wings to cardboard as a lepidopterist might a prismatic butterfly. In spite of what science teaches us, only a delicate admixture of evidence and intuition can yield the truest view of the emotional mind. To slip between the twin dangers of empty reductionism and baseless credulity, one must balance a respect for proof with a fondness for the unproven and the unprovable. Common sense must combine in equal measure imaginative flight and an aversion to orthodoxy.”
#3 How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
One of the first best selling self-help books to be published (the first edition came out in 1936) still holds a lot of relevance today. I think it is this fact that really interested me because, despite the cultural and technological advances the world has made since the thirties (too mind boggling to even try and comprehend), the way we interact as people and the way in which we build healthy and meaningful relationships with others and indeed ourselves has not.
This is probably one of my favourite quotes of the book and has a lot of relevance given my foolish ways when I criticised nonfiction:
“Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”'...it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.' David Carnegie Click To Tweet
The crux of the book is that most people are out for themselves and it’s the rare individual who serves others and looks at things from each person’s own angle that has little competition and therefore can expect success.
“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get to other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”
#4 A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking
No one would dispute Stephen Hawking’s scientific genius but I think what this book did was also confirm just how remarkable he truly is. Not only does he purport and prove complex scientific theory and solve mathematical equations we couldn’t even dream of but manages to explain it all to non-specialist readers. Plus I’m a sucker for anything to do with cosmology and the possibility of time travel.
“Ever since the dawn of civilisation, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity’s deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.”
#5 H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
People may be getting sick of me (and untold others) going on about how amazing this book is, but that’s because it is. Part memoir, part biography of T.H. White and wholly incredible, the book as the blurb suggests, is about ‘memory, nature and nation and, how it might be possible to reconcile death with life and love.’ Part of the charm really is the author herself. I was bewitched by her the first time I heard her speak at the Sydney Writer’s Festival—something about her voice, her expression and her honesty especially when discussing grief and mental illness. Also (and I’m admitting I’m a crazy dog lady here as many of you would have already guessed), she is the first writer who I’ve felt really captures the spiritual connection humans and animals can share—giving words to the bond I have with my own dog, Brielle.
“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”
To see more of my favourite nonfiction reads check out the collection I’ve pinned on my Pinterest board, non-boring nonfiction.
What are some of your favourite nonfiction books? I’d love some new titles to read. Do you prefer nonfiction to fiction? Let me know in the comments section below.