books · discussions · shanti

explorations in non fiction

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my evolving reading tastes, a delirious, chaotic post with little order and only some sense. I said that I wasn’t sure why I read non-fiction yet. But I’ve been thinking about it more, and I have some ideas (okay jk I finished writing that last post and had a bunch of ideas about non fiction and started writing this immediately afterwards). Basically, non-fiction satisfies my curiousity in a different way to fiction.

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If you recall, I gave myself a challenge last year to only read non-fiction for 6 weeks. That sort of started it, I guess, though I have read the odd non-fiction title in the past. It gave

I like knowing things about the world. I like having little nuggets of information which I can pull out at opportune moments. I like trivia. Non-fiction has all of that.

I especially regret not doing more science and history in high school, because I find both areas fascinating. When I was choosing my classes for university I had a couple of crises because there was so much! that I wanted to learn. But I thought about it. I thought that my favourite things about history and science are the interesting side stories, the ones with all the details, not what gets glossed over in a class. So I decided that, for the most part, I would continue learning those things by books, which are faster and often more engaging and decidedly less work (though if I get the chance to take a good looking class in either topic, I will seize it).

While I read the odd book of essays and memoir, I mostly read more informative non-fiction, about the broader world rather than individuals. I like sciency books and history books and books about language and writing; most non fiction I read would fall in one of those three categories. And when I think about it, this makes perfect sense in terms of my interests and skills, especially with language. Learning about linguistics is simply so fun! I don’t know if I’d like to actually study linguistics, because it can be so technical, but it’s really interesting to read about, say, the way dictionaries are compiled, or how the English language developed in America.

I am deeply curious about the world I live in, and I love learning about that. When I read non-fiction, I feel like someone else is putting the pieces together for me, showing how things fit together (at least within the specific topic of the book). I feel like the world is big and confusing and horrifying and gross and overwhelming, and the clarity of non-fiction books offers a release from that; well researched explanations that show me how things belong in places. Words are order, because they must be ordered to make sense. In fiction, that means that stories often don’t have the dross of real life, the trips to the bathroom and the boring classes and the friendships which never meant much and dissolve easily. In non fiction, narrative is more about topic, to see all the links (or at least most of them) and how they’re part of the chain mail shirt. When huge and perplexing things are given words, they are also given clarity, and sense, and I really appreciate that about non fiction.

It’s cool to start reading non-fiction, because there are suddenly so many more books available to me, so many more that I have to catch up on. I’ve read a few nature books which I adored (namely Landmarks and The End of Night) so I want to look for more books about how people relate to nature and what that means. I want to find more books about languages and writing. I want to find more books about history. I know that it’s out there.

To me, part of the responsibility of existing on this planet is to learn about it. Right now, non fiction is one of the best tools I have to do that. It’s endlessly exciting.

And if you’re getting into non-fiction, here are some titles I’ve read in the last few months and recommend:

  • Koh-i-noor by William Darymple and Anita Anand (blood, betrayal, empire, and diamonds)
  • Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane (mountains, landscapes, and the language we use to crystallise them)
  • Into the Woods by John Yorke (nothing to do with the musical, alas, but an excellent read on the great mechanics of storytelling)
  • The Sense of Style by Stephen Pinker (how to write with clarity with lots of interesting examples from linguistics)
  • First Bite by Bee Wilson (how we learn to think about food and how that can be changed)
  • Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt and The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers (statistically analyzing books IS fun)
  • Pandora’s Lab and Quackery by Lydia Kang and Nate Pederson (science and healing can go so very wrong)

Do you read non fiction? What are some of your favourite titles? Tell me about it in the comments!

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17 thoughts on “explorations in non fiction

    1. there are lot of decent non-fiction books out there. You just have to figure out what you like! (I really liked Romantic Outlaws, which was a literary biography of Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstoncraft; you could give that a go?)

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  1. I personally haven’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I am trying to read more of it! At the moment, my thing is humorous autobiographies (it’s gateway non-fic until I work my way into the heavier stuff). I’ll definitely have to check out some of the titles that you’ve listed here though!

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    1. Fair enough! I have occassionally read biographies but mostly I get bored (real people? ugh) I’d love to hear your thoughts if you get a chance to read any of these!

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  2. Oooh I absolutely LOVE non-fiction too! I feel like it’s such a nice change of pace every once in a while. Don’t get me wrong, I love my magical realism, but you are so right about learning little nuggets of info and being able to pull them out at the best moments. I recently had my friend tell me “you know just enough about everything to join any conversation” and I took that as such a huge compliment! I may not be an expert on the real estate market, or the history of the second world war, but I do feel confident in my working knowledge now and that is all due to reading non fiction 🙂

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    1. I wish I could have done AP European history, and I think I’d have maybe even gotten a lot out of US history. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to do some African or South American history at uni (it’s the kind of thing you have time for if you’re not an engineering major)

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  3. Wow so inspiring! I agree that you can just feel like you’re in a box with regards to what you’re “allowed” to read…only last summer did I look at the History section in B&N and think oh my goodness I am allowed to read books from here. Interesting picks! I like English history…and I’d like to read some stuff about the U.S.S.R. and modern Russia.
    ~Hermione

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    1. Exactly! I’m trying not to box myself in, with *some* success. I’d love to find some more history books, if you have any you like (If you’re into the end of the USSR, I recommend The Year That Changed the World about 1989)

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  4. Yeah I love non-fiction. Not so much for nuggets of information as you put it but for seeds of ideas. Wonderful to let them grow and live in a richer world because it is now populated by them, things like “The Spirit Level “,Germs, Guns and Steel, “Quiet”,”Messy” (which I just read) and “The Secret Life of Trees” which I am reading now. …

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    1. It’s definitely very inspiring! Guns Germs and Steel is i n s a n e–actually, Jared came up in the economics book I’m reading at the moment. and I gotta read The Spirit Level!

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  5. Love this post! One of my goals this year is to branch out and read more nonfiction. First Bite sounds particularly interesting! If you enjoy books about the food industry/how we could change it, I highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. 🙂

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  6. I like this because when I think about non fiction books I usually think about a story about an author’s life and often forget that books about WRITING and LINGUISTICS are also non fiction! *face palms*

    I’m always weary about those kinds of books despite wanting to read them because I’m scared that they won’t work? What if the stuff in the books is already stuff I can find online? Especially books about linguistics? Because I’ve looked at oh so many YouTube videos on how to learn languages and I’ve seen a lot of similarities and I don’t wanna waste money so I guess I should order stuff from the library, then. Gosh Grace…

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    1. There’s so much non-fiction because the world is so big! I think books often have a central thesis which holds them together a bit. You do see some of the same information repeated, but with different interpretations I guess. It’s just a change of pace if you ever get sick of youtube lol

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