Finding the Right Nonfiction Book For You

  • by Andrea Lipinski
    Fast Food Nation

    Reading nonfiction books can open your eyes to different subjects and make you see them in a new light, and I’m not just saying that because I haven’t eaten a burger from McDonald’s since I read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.  Reading nonfiction books can change your perspective in both small and profound ways.  

    At the last meeting of my teen book club we discussed The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming.  We started by talking about how much we enjoyed that book, but later our conversation spun off into a discussion about what qualities make a nonfiction book so good that we just HAVE to share it with other people.

    Harlan Ellison Hornbook

    I’ve always preferred reading fiction to nonfiction, with a few notable exceptions that have stayed with me over the years.  When I was a teenager I subscribed to Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine.  I started my subscription because I loved the short stories, but even though I would read each issue all the way through I soon found myself reading the magazine out of order.  That’s because I became so attached to the “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” column that I would read that before anything else.  Primarily, my love of his column had to do with the strength, intelligence, and humor of Ellison’s voice, and this column made me seek out both his fiction and nonfiction writing.  He was one of the first critics I enjoyed, and I went on to love other critical voices like Roger Ebert writing about movies and Anthony Bourdain writing about food.

    In Cold Blood

    When I was in college my boyfriend lent me his copy of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and that is still one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read.  The strength, again, is in the author’s voice.  Capote was writing about a real-life crime that was covered by lots of newspapers at the time that it occurred.  So in one way the story was straightforward since people already knew what happened at the end.  Yet the way Capote told the story, cutting back and forth and building tension between chapters, made this nonfiction book suspenseful like a thriller novel.  This was the first memorable true crime story I read, and later when I was an adult I went on to read and enjoy many other true crime stories.  I especially loved The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson as well as many books by Harold Schechter and graphic novels by Rick Geary.

    King of the Mild Frontier

    Another favorite area of nonfiction for me can be found in the biography and collective biography sections of the library.  Here I’ve found many biographies, autobiographies and memoirs that I read for enjoyment and that I’ve shared with middle school and high school classes over the years.  Browsing through these shelves I’ve found funny books like King of the Mild Frontier: an Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher and How They Choked: Failures, Flops, and Flaws of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg.  I also learned about many people I’d never heard of before in books like Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, & Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple.  And since lots of teens request books about real people who had to overcome obstacles, I’ve read and shared books like Everything Sucks: Losing My Mind and Finding Myself in a High School Quest For Cool by Hannah Friedman, Stitches: A Memoir by David Small, and The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls.

    The Professor and the Madman

    I enjoy reading history books, and I especially enjoy reading books that focus on aspects of history that I didn’t know about before.  Most people have heard of the Oxford English Dictionary, but how many people know that one of its authors mailed in his contributions from a criminal lunatic asylum?  I learned all about it in The Professor and The Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the  Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester.   Would you like to learn about the secret side of Hollywood history while perusing some classic cocktail recipes?  Then make sure you check out Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History by Mark Bailey.  

    Nonfiction can be a difficult genre to explore if you don’t know where to start.  Sometimes you might begin by browsing the shelves about a subject that already interests you, like dinosaurs or psychology or magic.  Or sometimes you get one recommendation that snowballs into more, and that often happens when you discover an author that you love.  

    Into the Wild

    For example, lots of young adult librarians were buzzing about Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer when it was published years ago.  I read it and I was so moved by the story itself but also by the way that Krakauer told the story that it motivated me to seek out other books by him.  That’s why I later read Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster (which I might have found on my own anyway) and Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains (which I NEVER would have found unless I was searching for his books).  Krakauer has found a lot of success over the years writing about all different nonfiction topics, including a famous humanitarian, Mormon fundamentalism, and the story of a hero that was ripped from the headlines.  

    I’ve found many great nonfiction books by following authors from topic to topic.  Basically, if you find the right author you’ll learn to trust them and follow them to learn about subjects that you would never normally explore.  

    The Family Romanov

    So let’s get back to those Romanovs, shall we?  Why was The Family Romanov so special that our NYPL committee voted for it as one of the best YA books of 2014?  Well, first there was the story of the Romanov family, which was already filled with drama, intrigue, and bad decisions.  There were many charismatic people in this story, including the members of the royal family and the “mad monk” Rasputin.  While there have been many books written about Russian history and the revolution that led to the death of the Tsar’s family and the rise of communism, Candace Fleming takes a fresh approach to telling this story.  Portions of the book focus on the royal family—their daily lives, their family dynamics, and their political decisions.  But other parts of the book describe life “beyond the palace gates.”  Fleming shows the readers how peasants and workers lived, and we get to read their own words which give us a broader perspective of how and why the people of Russia rose up to overthrow their government and end a dynasty.  This book offers a unique perspective on historical events that will intrigue readers whether or not they are familiar with the story.  Much like Capote’s In Cold Blood, it’s the telling of the story that will make you keep turning the pages, even if you already know how that story’s going to end.

    Looking for more nonfiction books?  Check out more blog posts on nonfiction topics, browse the nonfiction shelves for your favorite subjects, and ask your neighborhood librarians for some recommendations!  And if you have a favorite nonfiction book you think our readers should know about, share it in the comments and tell us why you think it’s great!