I used to think that I only liked stories. Give me a good novel any day, but if a book was found in the nonfiction section, then I wanted nothing to do with it.
Now, with the authors of narrative nonfiction telling so many crazy facts in a wide range of styles, I’ve had to change my mind. Nonfiction done well is just as entertaining as a novel, and you can even impress your friends with some new facts when you’re done reading.
Erik Larson introduced me to narrative nonfiction with his The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Fascinating… and creepy! This is a tough story about a serial killer on the loose during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair —I wanted to think it was fiction, but Larson’s meticulous research proves otherwise. Don’t try this one if you are easily rattled. Considering Larson’s other subjects include devastating hurricanes, sinking ships, and the rise of Nazi Germany, if you don’t like a serious subject with some dark themes, you’d best stay away.
Try Mary Roach instead. She tackles a variety of science subjects—space travel, digestion, human cadavers—with a witty and irreverent tone that makes strange topics accessible and appealing. Start with Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.
Travel writing has long been a mainstay of narrative nonfiction, and one of my favorite authors is John Steinbeck. How wonderful for me that he decided to write about one of his road trips! Travels with Charley: In Search of America is the story of Steinbeck’s 1960 road trip through almost 40 states in his pickup truck with his dog Charley. While not light subject matter—Steinbeck witnessed firsthand the difficulties of desegregation in the South, for example—this book paints a fascinating picture of America and of the author himself.
So if you’ve been stuck on novels, give one of these a try. I’m glad I did.