Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Nonfiction November - Reads like fiction

For the fourth week of Nonfiction November, Rennie at What's Nonfiction? asks about nonfiction that reads like fiction:
Nonfiction 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'd say for me it's great if a volume of nonfiction reads like fiction when it's a topic area where it works. I'd say the best work of nonfiction I've read this year is Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life, the first version of his autobiography, and quite a lot of that did read like fiction and fiction of the best sort. The story quite naturally has narrative drive: it goes from his birth and earliest memories, from one owner to another, bad and worse, how he learns the forbidden activities of reading and writing, and ends with the climax of his escape to freedom. The prose is quite punchy, rather surprisingly so for something that came out in 1845.

But the best other nonfiction works I read this year definitely do not read like fiction, and that's OK, too. Earlier in the year I read Brian Dillon's volume Essayism, which is a series of essays about his favorite essayists intermixed with biographical elements. I wouldn't want this to read like fiction, and it has no need to. And just this month I read Raymond Geuss' Changing The Subject, Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno, which was an idiosyncratic history of philosophy with footnotes and a reasonably full academic apparatus, but I still found it a great read. (I may have skipped some of the footnotes, though.)

So I guess my answer is, it depends!

But in thinking about the subject I got to browsing and reminded myself about these two travel books, which definitely read like great adventure novels, traveling in Arabia in the 30s and 40s:

Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands
Freya Starks' The Southern Gates of Arabia


  1. These all sound lovely. I think I shall try to find a couple of these.

    I adore good nonfiction.