Non-fiction and me …

I have shelves full of proper non-fiction books all awaiting my attention. Books historical, geographical, biographical, scientific, and so on – you get the picture.

I love the idea of reading them, but in practice they make up less than ten percent of my reading. The majority of those I do read are memoirs and biographies, with occasional forays into popular science and the lighter end of the spectrum.

A small selection of non-fiction books from my TBR is pictured below. Which book am I most likely to read out of them?

It’s got to be the Nick Hornby, which is a reading diary of sorts; books about books are ideal fodder for non-fiction-phobes. Then I’d pick Heretics – which is popular science. These two may actually get read some time soon, the rest ….

It’s not that I don’t want to read these books, but proper non-fiction tends to be dense and thus hard to read in comparison with a novel. It takes an outlay of at least double the time per book, and requires so much more concentration. Slacker that I am, it is just so much easier to read novels and lighter or bite-size non-fiction, however much I yearn to improve myself with the weightier tomes.

I few months ago I accepted a review copy of a non-fiction book on social economics and risk engineering, for it sounded fascinating, and I thought it would be a good challenge to read. The book was Antifragile by Nicholas Taleb which follows on from his bestseller The Black Swan in which he proposed that uncertainty rules the world.  In Antifragile, he develops his manifesto to explain how to live in a Black Swan world.

I ‘m sad to say it was a rare DNF for me, (did not finish).  The concepts are very complex, and the language is frequently esoteric, and I just didn’t have the commitment to the book to persevere.  One blogger who did read it and find it fascinating though was Jackie.

Each year in my annual round-up posts, I say I should read more non-fiction. I haven’t started off well this year – of sixteen books read, only one is not a novel and that was a diet book.  While I dislike setting myself reading challenges as I nearly always don’t finish them, maybe I should try to read one (or more) non-fiction book each month…  We’ll see.

Do you read much non-fiction?
Do you suffer from the same lack of concentration with it that I do?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.

* * * * *
To explore the books mentioned on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, paperback
The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr, pub Feb 2013, Picador hardback.
Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand by Nicholas Taleb, pub Nov 2012, Allen Lane Hardback.

0 thoughts on “Non-fiction and me …

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I *do* like non-fiction but more often than not it ends up being biography rather than anything more challenging. I think it’s often inevitable with the busy lives we lead that we have less time and concentration. I work in a school and I can always read so much more in the holiday breaks than I can when I’m working, as it’s so intense and I’m too tired to concentrate on heavy stuff after a day’s work. I guess we just have to tailor our reading to fit our lifestyle sometimes 🙁

  2. Teresa says:

    I really like reading nonfiction, but I tend to find that if it isn’t a memoir or narrative nonfiction built around a story, I have a lot of trouble retaining what I read. It helps if I try to look for patterns and trends in the facts, rather than worrying about remembering the details, but I often do feel that I’m not getting the full benefit of the reading when I do that.

  3. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I’ve read three autobiographical books this one (one was fictionalised autobiography) out of the 10 books I’ve read this year – more than usual. I’m also reading two more – one I read at night and one in the mornings. These are a book about trees and one about introverts. Both are detailed and need concentration and are taking me far longer than novels. The one about trees is getting very tedious and I keep falling asleep reading it – I’d give up, except that I’ve only got about 60 pages left, but they are taking me so long … I’m liking the introvert book much more.

    I like to mix in reading novels with non-fiction, by way of variety.

    • gaskella says:

      Is that the ‘Quiet’ book. Being mostly an introvert, it appeals to me. I shall look out for your thoughts on it with interest.

  4. Charleen says:

    I rarely read non-fiction, but when I do, I view it more as “research” than “reading.” I probably also have a novel going at the same time (and I am not one to read two books at once). I’ll read them in much smaller doses, and I’ll skip around to the parts that interest me. To me it’s just a completely different activity.

    • gaskella says:

      I think I view research as different to reading non-fic for pleasure. I’m not averse to a bit of research, but finding a good non-fic read is difficult.

  5. tanya says:

    Your words echo my sentiments. I have trouble reading non fiction as well, though I am making a concerted effort to read more. The thing about non fiction is that it has to be the ‘right’ book to grab me. And as i think about it, there is a fair bit of fiction that i just won’t read, but i think i am more aware of my fiction tastes because i read it more.

  6. Alex says:

    Most of the non-fiction I read falls into one of two categories, either books about books and/or reading or letters and journals. As the latter are usually the letters or journals of writers you can see a pattern developing here. Whatever I read I never really get away from novels.

    • gaskella says:

      I love epistolary or journal type novels, so real letters or journals are not so far away are they – maybe I should read more of these – I have a few in my TBR…

  7. Marie says:

    I set myself a sort of unofficial challenge of reading one non-fiction book a month but it turned out to be way too ambitious, I’ve reduced it and am now going for a target of four a year. I like popular science books the best. I’m not too big a fan of biographies. Of your selection the only one I’ve read is the Steven Pinker, it’s good but I prefer his books on language.

    • gaskella says:

      I’m not good on challenges either Marie. I did actually manage 11 non-fic books last year, including 6 biogs. That was unusual for me though, sadly, it’s normally much less than that.

  8. farmlanebooks says:

    I never normally read a lot of non fiction, but I seem to be going through a bit of a phase at the moment. I understand why you abandoned Antifragile – it is tough going and would probably be even harder to grasp if you haven’t read Black Swan, but I loved the new concepts it came up with. If you’re after a great non fiction book I recommend Far from the Tree – it blew me away! Hope you find a good non fiction book soon. 🙂

    • gaskella says:

      I’ve seen your review of Far from the Tree – and added it to my wishlist. I remember when Black Swan came out – I heard a lot about it and thought I knew enough to embark on Antifragile, but found not! Looking forward to reading ‘Heretics’ from my selection above though.

  9. Sly Wit says:

    I too am one who finds the prospect of non-fiction books more appealing than reading the actual books. One thing that helps me is listening to non-fiction titles as audiobooks, that is how I “read” Quiet, mentioned above (and highly recommended). I walk a lot and fiction doesn’t really work for me in audio form, but non-fiction and podcasts are great.

    That said, 1/3 of my titles so far this year have been non-fiction, that I actually had as books. So far, the best of the lot has been The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. Fascinating.

    • Claire 'Word by Word' says:

      I read this one last year and thought it was excellent too, this is a good example of non-fiction written in the engaging way of writing a novel and for me that is when it really succeeds. Another was Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road, utterly compelling.

      • Sly Wit says:

        I generally don’t love autobiography (mostly because I usually want to feel like I’m “learning” something from non-fiction), but that one sounds interesting and somewhat reminiscent of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

        I don’t think The Black Count is quite as “narrative” as some might like, but it was certainly very engaging to me (since I was trained as a French cultural historian).

        Other relatively recent non-fiction books that have a good mix of history and narrative are Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand (her Seabiscuit was also excellent), Season of the Witch by David Talbot, and The Lost City of Z by David Grann.

  10. heavenali says:

    I do like non – fiction – but I have to remind myself to read it sometimes. I don’t read science stuff or anything “hard” : ) I generally stick to biographies, memoirs and letters, with the occaisional go at travel writing or popular histories. Last year I read 134 books – only 20 were non fiction – I was plannng on doing much better this year but so far have only managed 3. I basically love fiction so much it’s hard to drag myself away from them.

  11. Ed says:

    I read some non-fiction, but I would guess that it only makes about 10 percent of my reading. For me it is mostly history, with some popular science and biographies. You are right that it takes more concentration because instead of dealing with plot and dialogue, you are often dealing with facts and concepts. I find that with more difficult books it can be useful to take a break, and then come back to it later.

    • gaskella says:

      Ed, I agree – you need breaks reading non-fiction. I’m also mostly a ‘one-book-at-a-time’ kind of reader for the most part, so I tend to read in bigger chunks and equate needing a break with getting fed up with non-fic perhaps! 🙂

  12. Leah says:

    I’ve been trying to read more non-fiction since graduating from college in May; now that I’m done with my formal education (for now, at least), it’s up to me to keep educating myself. I’ve found that I really like memoirs, and I’m getting into essay collections. I’ve actually done really well so far this year; Of the 11 books I’ve read one book each of history, biography, popular science, memoir, and essays. I think the trick is to read about topics that are really interesting to you and to find books that are written in an engaging manner.

  13. Juxtabook says:

    I love non-fiction when I am studying but without an essay or a deadline I just don’t seem to read it. I’ve three books on my bedside table that I’ll know I will really enjoy but you don’t ‘love’ non-fiction like you do a novel so my hand hovers over them and then I pick up fiction. Every time.

  14. Teresa says:

    My non-fiction reading does tend to revolve around the love of books and biographies of writers. You’ve just reminded me that I have biographies of Hardy and Dickens which I should read some time this year! I enjoyed The Polysyllabic Spree when I read it a few years ago

  15. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    I was never a great fan of non-fiction and even those words created an impression of something dense and uninspiring, often despite the subject – UNTIL – I met my very good best book buddy here in France, who has a masters in creative non-fiction and she opened up a whole other world of engaging non-fiction to me. She is American and I have to say that many of the engaging works she recommended were by American or French ‘belles lettres’ authors, where it is much more of a practiced art form (started by Lee Gutkind who I believe put the creative in front of non-fiction) – no turning PhD theses into books and calling them non-fiction, these are essays or books that write about their subject in an engaging and compelling way.

    I realised that there was a lot out there wasn’t being put in front of me. So now when I think non-fiction, I think of something quite different and I ask my friend for recommendations, because they’re not the same as what I read on the reviews pages of the Guardian, although having said that there will always be the occasional gem, like Edmund De Waal’s fabulous book I’ve only just read now.

    Today though we do have Kate Summerscale getting into a more engaging type of non-fiction, Kathleen Jamie with her nature essays, Diana Athill & Lynn Barber’s memoirs, Terry Tempest Williams whose wonderful book I reviewed last year When Women Were Birds, well those are just a few that come to mind, but it’s a little bit of word of mouth I think to find the gems, or like me, have a great friend who specialises in and teaches exactly that kind of engaging writing. Great topic!

    • gaskella says:

      Thanks Claire, I agree that a more narrative style of non-fiction is developing, but it is hard to find the gems. The Edmund de Waal book is not for me, but some years ago I did enjoy Utz by Bruce Chatwin (about a Meissen collector), which has some superficial similarities. I loved Lynn Barber’s memoirs too, but haven’t yet read Athill’s although I own copies.

  16. winstonsdad says:

    I only tend read books about books ,rock bio ,music related and cycling football related non fiction I love thought myself but sometimes remember I love my translations so much I haven’t time for great piece of non fiction ,all the best stu

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