Reading nonfiction

So, I saw this post over at Rinn Reads, a blog I’m glad someone pointed out to me because I immediately said Yeah!. Then I said, Oh, memoirs? Because to me the experience of reading a memoir is identical to the experience of reading fiction, only (usually) not as interesting, because, well, fewer dragons, right?

There are exceptions, though. Have any of you read EIGHTH MOON?

Here’s what Amazon says about it: “Sansan was four when the Communists took Tientsin. She was seventeen when she left China in 1962. This is her story of the years between: how she lived, what she hated, whom she loved; a sturdy, stubborn girl’s true record of an existence none of her readers has ever known.”

Here’s what I say about it: It’s an amazing story. Sansan is so ordinary, and her circumstances are so extraordinary, and the juxtaposition gives you whiplash. I knew about the Cultural Revolution, but this will bring that to life — on a very small scale, because this is a story about Sansan’s life, not a political treatise. What she knows about is what’s happening to her and to her family and neighbors. This is a story I keep giving away, but luckily paper copies are easy to come by and not expensive, and the Kindle edition I linked is also inexpensive.

But memoir is definitely not at ALL what I think of when I think of nonfiction.

I read a lot of nonfiction when I’m supposed to be working on a project of my own. Since that’s the case at the moment, I currently have on my coffee table:

WHAT JANE AUSTEN ATE AND CHARLES DICKENS KNEW, by Daniel Pool. It is quite entertaining, plus since I’ve been reading Regencies lately, it’s nice to finally know the difference between a guinea and a pound (I thought they were the same thing, but it turns out not quite) and how to play whist. Did you know that when a gentleman escorted a lady down to supper at a ball, he stood by while she ate, but he didn’t eat anything himself? I had no idea.

WHAT IF THE MOON DIDN’T EXIST by Neil Comins, an entertaining look at what happens to Earth-like planets if they form under different conditions.

A MAN FOR ALL SPECIES, by Marc Marrone, which is supposed to be anecdotes by a guy who is owns a pet store — one presumes he doesn’t sell puppy mill puppies, but I haven’t read the book yet — anyway, the store is called Parrots of the World, so I expect it’s one of those specialty places that raise their own parrots and things.

EVERYDAY LIFE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA, edited by Kathleen Adams and Kathleen Gillogly, which I want to read to develop a SE Asian “flavor” for a book I want to write sometime. Don’t hold your breath; I only have a few pages of that one written, plus I suspect there is a dragon in it somewhere.

ART THROUGH THE AGES, edited by Crosby, because it was free to a good home and I picked it up. I’m hoping it is nice to flip through, but this is not likely to be something I read from cover to cover.

DOLPHIN SOCIETY by Karen Pryor, which I’ve read before but want to read again.

HOW TO READ A FRENCH FRY, by Russ Parsons, a book on food science — Parsons explains why French fries don’t brown as well in perfectly clean new oil as in oil that was used once already, and lots of other things. I’ve read this one before, too.

Okay, all those books really are just sitting here on my coffee table. I didn’t cheat by going and getting a couple more to pile up here.

It’s true that fiction is more compelling on a must-turn-the-page level. That’s why I don’t read much fiction when I’m working on something of my own. But . . . honestly, if you don’t ever voluntarily read anything but fiction, I think you’re missing out. And as a writer, I know I would be. I may not be doing the research a true historical novel would require, that’s way too much work for me, but I believe that any writer will do better worldbuilding if they actually know something about the world. Something deeper than the snappy soundbites we’re handed by pop culture and mass media.

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6 thoughts on “Reading nonfiction”

  1. I will note that in Jane Austen fan-circles, WHAT JA ATE & CD KNEW usually receives a severe side-eye for conflating the Regency & Victorian eras, which had pretty different senses of morals, manners, & etc. It’s definitely good for the “what does this word actually mean?” queries that you mention, but in terms of really solid research my understanding is it’s a bit dodgy.

  2. I’ve heard that from writers in the Regency/Georgian/Victorian genres, too. They don’t recommend relying on it.

    I tend to read non-fiction in the form of history with a slant: history of mathematics and measuring as in THE MEASURE OF REALITY (Crosby) which covers physics, music, mathematics, bookkeeping and more! over approx 1000-1600 AD; clocks & timekeeping in REVOLUTION IN TIME (Landes); interesting people as in NEWTON & THE COUNTERFEITER (Levanson) which nicely ties in Newton’s alchemical interests with his ire at counterfeiters when he is master of the Mint. And doing perhaps the first time & motion studies. Also summarizing the point of the Principia which I actually waded through once, in such a way that I now understand why it had such an impact. LONGITUDE… lots about inventing and making things.

    And memoirs that catch my interest, such as those by Ray Chapman Andrews, fossil hunter in the Gobi in the 20s; or Adela Rogers St. John, reporter over most of the early-mid 20th century, and witness to many exciting courtroom moments for her father took her to work with him and he was (supposedly) the model for Perry Mason, with a reputation for getting clients off scot free. Picked up originally for the California connection, and liked enough to look for more.

    some art books, though those that have survived various cullings for shelf-space, are those on paleographic art, cave paintings, really ancient carvings, etc.

  3. what I like best is non-fiction about medical conditons, insanity, global outbreaks of horrible diseases, and the like. I tend not to read history for fun, because it’s too close to work….unless, of course, the historical people are sick and or insane.

  4. Actually, I’m not sure the “What Jane Austen” book conflates multiple periods so much as that many entries include multiple periods but don’t do much to help you sort out what type of court system (or whatever) was actually in place at exactly which period. But, no, it doesn’t look like it would be much good for serious research. It’s fun to read and it makes a good companion to fiction set in that type of venue, and I suspect it was written for people like me who just want that kind of companion nonfiction book, rather than for people who really want to sort out the exact details.

    Charlotte, not really! I would never have guessed that for you. Have you read Peter Kramer’s books? I really like all his nonfiction.

  5. Kathleen and I are so tickled that you’re reading our book (someday). Let us know what you think, please! And I will definitely read something with dragons, what can I say – Anne McCaffrey was one of my favorite authors as a young teen.

  6. I love the “everyday life in” types of books! I’m really looking forward to reading your book. And yes, it’s hard to beat THE WHITE DRAGON.

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