Nonfiction November – Reads Like Fiction

Rennie at What’s Nonfiction brings us this week’s prompt:

Nonfiction-November-2018Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

I do love a nonfiction book that reads like an exciting novel!  It isn’t a requirement, though.

Some genres lend themselves to an exciting, novel-like treatment. True crime comes to mind, as well as history books about a specific event.  Characters are introduced, a plot is set into motion, and descriptive writing keeps us interested and engaged. One of my favorite books in this vein is Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy. I listened to it on audio and was riveted, finishing the book in a few days.

I don’t require it though. Essay collections by their nature rarely read like fiction, nor books that recommend books like The Novel Cure.  And nerd that I am I sometimes dive into straight up textbooks – Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry, I’m looking at you! As much as I enjoy fiction-y nonfiction, it doesn’t work well in all cases.

Narrative nonfiction gets a lot of love so I want to ask you guys – what’s a favorite nonfiction book that doesn’t read like fiction?

17 thoughts on “Nonfiction November – Reads Like Fiction

  1. The Guiness Book of World Records is an amazing nonfiction book, loved by millions, that certainly does not read like fiction.

    All of my travel books don’t read like fiction.

    My cookbooks occasionally read like fiction.

    So I’d say I love narrative nonfiction but I also just love regular old nonfiction.

  2. Ghettoside (audio book)…was magnificant!
    I listened to it while biking…and at times forgot time and place.
    I’m looking forward to any other book by Los Angeles journalist Jill Leovy.
    What a hero detective John Skaggs is…devotes his life to making black lives expensive
    ….and worth answering for.

    1. Oh no, that sounds like a dangerous thing to listen to while cycling! 😂 I hope that Leovy comes out with more books, I’ll snap them up for sure.

  3. Michael

    Great point! Not all genres lend themselves well to creative elements. I just finished On Immunity by Eula Biss, her book on public health and wellness. It’s great, but it jumps around from topic to topic and doesn’t have much of a narrative arc to it.

    1. I recently picked up an advance copy called An Elegant Defense about the immune system – that sounds like a great book to pair with it! Jumping around can be great if done well, but in the wrong hands it falls apart. So glad it worked out here!

  4. Ghettoside was such a good one! And good points, especially about how certain topics don’t lend themselves well to a creative nonfiction style. I agree with you about essay collections reading very differently and I love that about them.

    I read a book recently that was so weird but also very good, I can’t even figure out entirely how I felt about because it was such a strange mix. It’s They All Love Jack, and is the culmination of the author’s many years of, I’d say obsessive, research into what he alleges is a conspiracy behind why Jack the Ripper wasn’t caught. He claims Jack was a Freemason and was protected by Masons in the police, government, etc. It’s all over the place – sometimes he’s angrily (and hilariously) cursing “Ripperology” or the investigation, other times laying out the Masonic connections. It’s hard to describe, actually, and even being really dense it ends up being unputdownable. I mention it because it definitely does not read anything like a novel, but also not like anything else I’ve ever read either. And I know you also have serial killer reading interests, maybe worth checking out 🙂

    1. They All Love Jack sounds so interesting, I’m putting it on my list! I don’t know all that much about Jack the Ripper, actually… would it do me good to read a more general account of the crimes before diving into this?

      1. I’m not particularly familiar with it either, that’s the first and only book I’ve read about it. But I had just recently read John Douglas’s Crimes that Haunt Us and it has a chapter on Jack the Ripper, so having that fresher in mind helped for sure. But I was googling a lot as I went. It’s weird because he’s incredibly detailed but then sometimes breezes over something quickly and despite the writing being so dense and encompassing so much he does assume some prior knowledge. Might be worth looking into something else first but I don’t know what to recommend you, especially since his thing is to tear apart previous theories. Maybe a documentary or something?

  5. Good question! One that springs to mind is “Is that a fish in your ear?” – a fascinating look at the challenges of translation. And “The Book of Joy” by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which includes stories from their amazing lives, but is much more of a meditation handbook than a novel. I also love compendiums of research and information, like “How To Be a Victorian” by Ruth Goodman. Those are some non-novelistic nonfiction titles I’ve enjoyed in the past few years.

    1. I remember seeing Is that a fish in your ear? when it came out, but totally forgot about it – thanks for the reminder! I’m glad to hear it’s good – I do translation for work sometimes and I’m afraid I’ll be like a doctor watching Gray’s Anatomy, yelling, “You’re doing it wrong!” at the screen. 😉

  6. I think you’re right, some kinds of nonfiction lend themselves to the “fictional” treatment, while others are better being more data driven (even though I do love when even serious, academic nonfiction can include storytelling in some form). A book I love a lot that’s not narrative is The Distraction Addiction by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, all about finding a more balanced way to live with our devices.

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