Friday, January 15, 2010

The vast ocean of non-fiction writing

When I come across a fellow book-lover, I am always interested in knowing what they read. More often than you expect, when I ask the question the person says, part dismissively part grandly, "Oh I read just about anything." I have always found that a revealing answer. It tells me a lot more about the speaker than they probably imagine (and very different from what they intend). I pigeonhole the person as someone from the group of interested if somewhat casual readers, who are happy to pick up books they come across and to read them but haven't yet found the discrimination to identify and label what they really like. Maybe I am mistaken about this. Maybe there are some true biblio-omnivores out there who truly read 'just about anything'. But I doubt it. There is just too much writing out there.

Take non-fiction, which is the mother of open seas, far as I can make out. There are so many different kinds of non-fiction books, authors and subjects that the mind reels at the thought of even classifying them. It is a little bit easier with fiction. Genres are relatively well defined. For anything that doesn't neatly fall into a genre there is the catch-all called 'literary fiction'. It isn't too complicated. Non-fiction, on the other hand, is a complex beast. One starts classifying by the high level subject - history, politics, current affairs, economics, management, psychology, sociology, self-help, popular science, biography and on and on. You can end up with a list that is a hundred items long, and still feel unsatisfied. Remember too, that there isn't a natural category for 'everything else'. Which makes the head spin at this task. Take any one of these categories though, and you realize that the category names are so woefully inadequate. The breadth and variety of books within each group is so vast! You might say you like books on politics, but your idea of a book on politics might be Team of Rivals, not I am America, and So Can You, which you might consider not a politics book at all.

The non-fiction books I have been reading recently are what started this line of thinking in my head. So far this year, I have only read non-fiction. My crossover book from last year into this one was What The Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell. Then I read Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder.

[As an aside, the terrible earthquake induced tragedy in Haiti has made that book sound even more touching in retrospect. I can't imagine what Dr.Paul Farmer and his Zanmi Lasante hospital in Haiti are going through right now and pray that they have all they need.]

I am currently reading two books, both non-fiction: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan and (on audio tape narrated wonderfully by the author) In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. Four books so far in this year. Each so different from the other that I am not sure whether there is at all a common underlying element that attracted me to them in the first place. And these four fairly diverse books are all 'non-fiction'.

Which makes me wonder - exactly how vast is this ocean called non-fiction? What makes me pick one book from this vastness over another? And who, pray, are the readers who truly read 'just about anything'?


  1. i'm confused. you seem to be one of the candidates who will read just about anything, based on your 2010 reading so far!