In Defense of Nonfiction

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a few of my friends about what we’d be reading lately. As we talked, I realized that while my friends were reading mostly fiction I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction. I’m currently working my way through two works of nonfiction, and those are on top of other books that I’ve already completed this year such as Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Paul Kalanthi’s When Breath Becomes Air.

My friends were encouraging me to read more fiction. And I do read fiction. I like fiction. For example, in the past few weeks, I’ve read three Dorothy Sayers books, and I have a few works of fiction sitting on my bookshelves awaiting my attention. Fiction is and always will be my first love.

For many years, I didn’t enjoy much nonfiction. I found most of it to be dry and boring. As a high schooler, I bemoaned any nonfiction reading that crossed my path. I could rouse up interest for a biography or spiritual work at times, but for the most part, I just was not interested. There were even time when I couldn’t engage with spiritual works of nonfiction because I found them too dry. Even in college, I was more interested in fiction because I found it to be more interesting.

In college, I developed an interest in the writings of certain Christian authors such as Peter Kreeft, C.S. Lewis, and St. Teresa of Avila. I found these works to be engaging and compelling because I could directly apply them to my own life. I had found a subset of nonfiction that was relatable to me, but I wasn’t willing to step out of that zone. All other nonfiction was boring to me…especially all of those articles that my professors were assigning to me. In retrospect, I’ve come to realize that I don’t often enjoy literature that is imposed on me.

Then a few years passed-mostly without me reading nonreligious nonfiction-and I had to teach nonfiction. I taught speeches, and I enjoyed those. I really liked having the students read those while we watched videos of the speeches; I found it to be easier to relate to the speeches then. I also had the opportunity to teach an excerpt from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and that really captured my interest. It wasn’t dry or boring; it was compelling. This wasn’t my usual experience of nonfiction. I didn’t go out and read Team of Rivals, but I put it on my list of things to read. (It’s still there. I need to work on that.) I also went and saw the movie Lincoln, which used the book as its principal source of information.

The movie also challenged my impressions of nonfiction. I realized that I enjoy many films that are at least inspired by real events (Miracle, Remember the Titans, Saving Private Ryan, and The King’s Speech), so why wouldn’t I enjoy reading about the stories behind those movies? Then, in the fall of 2014, I heard that Chris Hemsworth was going to be in a movie about whaling called In the Heart of the Sea. I’m not entirely sure why, but I really wanted to see this movie. (Okay, I wanted to see it because I think he’s attractive. Moving right along…) But I didn’t want to see the movie until I had read the book behind it. That’s my rule for fiction books, so I decided to apply it to nonfiction as well.

I’ve never looked back. I never did end up seeing the movie, but I adored the book. In reading that book, I had a lightning bolt moment. It was a story. I was reading a story. Yes, it was different than the stories that I usually read, but it was a story with a plot and setting and characters. It wasn’t just interesting; it was spellbinding. I loved it.  Nathaniel Philbrick’s prose was remarkable. I loved the book, and I wanted to read more. I wanted to read more nonfiction like this book.

I began seeking out good nonfiction. I talked to people I knew who knew things about the subjects in which I was interested. One of my friends recommended Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy to answer some of my questions about the history of Russia. I learned so much from it! That was the thing that I began to learn about reading well-written nonfiction: I was learning things and having fun at the same time. This was what I wished my high school history classes had been.

I have found nonfiction to be a good way for me to fill the gaps left in my education. I haven’t taken a history class since I was 16, and my history education was a bit lacking in certain areas. (I watched The Patriot more than once in an American history class. We also watched Top Gun once.) Nonfiction helps me to learn the things that high school didn’t teach me. While reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the Founding Fathers. I compiled a list of biographies of Founding Fathers and asked a coworker who studied politics which of the books I should read first. And that’s how David McCullough’s John Adams ended atop my To Read List.

Nonfiction allows us to learn about the world in a unique way. While fiction can introduce us to ideas or emotions, nonfiction can introduce us to events and people. Each of these things has its proper place. I love learning about ideas or being challenged by the premise of a novel or short story. But I also love learning the lessons of the Russian Revolution or of a failed whaling expedition from 1820. I can learn about events, meet new people, and see the world through a different lens.

My problem with nonfiction was that I was reading the wrong things or coming at it from the wrong approach. I didn’t know how to choose good nonfiction, and the only exposure that I had to it came from school. I didn’t like most of what was in my school textbooks, and my teachers didn’t necessarily mitigate that well. They may not have known how to do this, or they may not have liked nonfiction either. Whatever the reason, nonfiction didn’t capture my interest until I was able to seek out my own nonfiction.

Much of my current nonfiction reading is inspired by what interests me. I read about Alexander Hamilton because I was curious about him. I read about the Russian Revolution because again I was curious. I read a biography of the Inklings because they’re writers whom I admire. I have plans to read a book by Julia Child because I want to know more about her. I’m now able to choose things that pique my curiosity. Anything we read should pique our curiosity or satisfy some sort of internal itch. After all, William Nicholson once said that we read to know that we’re not alone, and shouldn’t reading about real people and places help us with that?

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