Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In Praise of Nonfiction

I talk a lot about fiction on my blog, about reading it and writing it. Usually when I mention loving to read I’m referring to fiction, and during the summers I really indulge myself there. I also prefer to write fiction over nonfiction, although I’ve actually sold well over a hundred nonfiction articles and the pay is much better than for fiction. Writing it is definitely a different kind of animal.

But my focus on fiction here shouldn’t be taken as a ‘dislike’ of nonfiction. I’ve often said that, as writers, nonfiction will feed our heads better than fiction, and I read a lot of nonfiction that is not just for work but for pleasure. I thought I might talk about it today. My nonfiction reading generally falls in three areas.

1. Science: I consider myself a scientist, and, as a teacher, I feel it absolutely necessary to keep up with scientific developments in the field of psychology. In the past five years I’ve been reading very heavily in the areas of evolution and evolutionary psychology, partly because I’m working on a book in that area, and partly because I’ve developed a couple of evolutionary related courses at my university. I’ve read some very good stuff in this area. The granddaddy book of them all in this field is Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, which I read many years ago but still reread passages from here and there. Some other good writers in this field include Loren Eiseley, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen J. Gould. Unless you’re working on a book, however, I’d suggest you not read many of the “Intelligent Design” screeds, which generally give a bad name to both science and religion.

2. Books on Writing: Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller, Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. These have been three of my favorites in this area in the last few years. But I also really enjoy reading writer’s biographies, and I’ve got a bunch, from Hemingway to Stephen King. I love hearing about how other writers work, and about their successes and not so successes. A lot of writer’s lives are probably pretty boring to people who aren’t writers, but I find them fascinating. Of course, I’ve actually written my own book in this field, my collection of writing tip articles and essays called Write With Fire

3. Music: I think I always secretly wanted to be a rock star. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as I sometimes think I would. And these days those dreams are way behind me. But I still read books about rock stars, mostly aging stars these days. Two of the more enjoyable works in this field that I’ve read have been Lemmy’s autobiography, White Line Fever, and Dave Mustaine’s self titled autobiography. I enjoyed Motley Crue’s The Dirt. I will eventually get around to Ozzy’s books.

I do read outside these three areas, though not as much. I’ve read a fair amount about motorcycle culture. I wouldn’t consider myself to have been an outlaw biker. I definitely was no 1%. But I enjoyed my years as a biker and I found the sub-culture pretty fascinating. I still read a few books about that world, including Ralph Barger’s Hell’s Angel. I devoured history when I was younger, particularly the history of ancient warfare, and World War II. I came close to becoming a history prof rather than a psychologist, and I would have specialized in WWII. But there’s only so many hours in the day and history has fallen off my radar for the most part in the past ten years.

What about you? What are some of your favorite nonfiction works, nonfiction areas?


Sidney said...

That is a great book by Block. I read his column in Writer's Digest religiously for years, and discovered the Matt Scudder series as the result of it plus a lot of his other work.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sidney, I discovered the Scudder series just about a year ago and am loving it. I've got several more to read.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

In non-fiction, most of my reading is Christian books, but one of the best non-fiction books I've read is The Perfect Storm.

Chris said...

As much as I love fiction, I think nonfiction has been the stuff that has inspired me the most over the last decade or so, and stayed with me. I read all kinds of it, but here are a few that I really enjoyed.

Sam Sheridan wrote a couple books on fighting and fighters; A Fighter's Heart and The Fighter's Mind.

Former journalist John Vaillant wrote two great books: The Golden Spruce and, one of my favorite books of the year, The Tiger.

I dig books about explorers and retracing their journeys. The Lost City of Z by David Grann is excellent, and I just read Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith. Have a couple more of these queued up as well.

Travel books in general I really like. I'm a fan of Paul Theroux, and Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia was a recent read I enjoyed.

Man, I could go on and on.

Deka Black said...

My most liked nonfiction works... Hmmm All taht deal with the history of Cantabria, the region of Spain in which i was born. You know, The cantabri were so foerce August himself come to deal with the problem.

That, and radio. I LOVE radio, and is a thing i like to know about.

Travis Erwin said...

I've been immersed in writing nonfiction lately, from freelance football articles to creative non fiction of my Lettuce book. And I agree with you. Pay is better but fiction is much more fun. I hope to get back to it soon.

X. Dell said...

(1) Not only is Ashedit's portrait flattering, it's accurate. I wouldn't be lying if I said you were one of my favorite fiction writers. (Then again, I hardly read any fiction, so I don't know how much that says:-).

(2) Non-fiction is really where my head is. Writing it is almost sometimes secondary to the research aspect. So it's very good to come across someone who can understand a topic and communicate it effectively. Case and point: Ted William's The Science of Hitting, for example, is a brilliant abstraction of a physical act. Just reading it can make you a better hitter.

Me, I just try to get my point across. I don't worry too much about style points.

Anonymous said...

Charles you are a Renaissance Man. Have you read Gillian Beer's 'Darwin's Plots' in which she explores the extent to which his use of narrative dominated the Victorian world view?

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, I've not read the Perfect Storm. Will have to see if I can find a copy.

Chris, travel books. yes, I've read some of those that I enjoy. Thanks for the heads up on some other good reads. I'll be looking for some of these.

Deka, I actually haven't read a lot of history about my own region in Arkansas. Some, and I've enjoyed it. I need to read more.

Travis Erwin, nothing like really exercising the imagination and letting it all out there.

X-Dell, I actually do read some sports books, but only on Football, and typically these days only about the Saints or the Hogs. I do like the research for nonfiction, the learning. I enjoy the pieces you've put up on your blog for sure. Glad you liked Elaine's piece.

Richard Godwin, I have not. I'll be looking for that one too. BTW, finished Apostle Rising this morning and will put up my reviews this evening. Very good.

Deka Black said...

Charles: Indeed. The interesting thing is that read about the subjexct, was that made me write fiction.

G. B. Miller said...

Non-fiction was my first true love and it has remained so, even as I write fiction and had my eyes opened to some pretty far out fiction in the past few years.

I don't have a particular favorite author in non-fiction (unlike fiction) but more like a favorite genre.

True crime.

Over the years/decades, I've drifted away from books about particular people, groups and events and concentrated more on the crime scene picture element.

I know that some people might think its strange, but after originally getting into it for the gross out factor, I now read it from a historical perspective, be it about police investigation procedures or the morals of the times etc.

There are certain types of crimes that I simply will not let cross my line of vision but as for everything else, I find it highly and endlessly fascinating.

Which is probably why I have a portal about all things related to death bookmarked in my favorites folder.

sage said...

I read more non-fiction than fiction and especially like memoirs and "creative non-fiction."

Charles, for the summer, I'm mostly posting in a new blog:

Also, due to my travels, I am not keeping up with folks blogs very well. Take care

Ron Scheer said...

You can tell from my blog that I have this way of reading fiction and then turning it into nonfiction. Best of both worlds.

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka, good nonfiction often inspires me as well. Gives me ideas and background and the richness that fiction needs.

G, I think we've talked a bit about True Crime before. It's too much for me most of the time. I actually seldom read it. I can imagine that if I were going to write crime fiction I'd need to bone up on that genre for sure.

Sage, I can imagine you're not having a lot of time. I'll check out your other blog.

Ron, the two feed off of each other nicely. I think a really rich reading life involves both.

Chris said...

The best nonfiction, I find, is written with the sensibilities of good fiction. Strong characters in the midst of a compelling story told well. When that stuff if firing on all cylinders, it is fantastic. Another great one, Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides, is about Kit Carson and the American Southwest. Just fantastic reading.

Charles Gramlich said...

Chris, I remember reading Killer Angels and it was just that, nonfiction but with the narrative power of fiction. One of my favorite books.

SzélsőFa said...

i too, find books about writing interesting. i like to read tourist guides and documentaries about travelling.
most of the non-fiction books i read however are from the field of agriculture - as this is the field where i too, write articles into two magazines. i need to keep up with the latest news and be well informed about the practices in general.

Deka Black said...

Another kind of non-fiction book i discovered recentrly thanks to a friend is true historical fencing. from, for use an example, ancient Rome, to 18th century.

there is more than meets the eye in a sword!

Charles Gramlich said...

Szelsofa, I used to read quite a few farming mags when I was growing up, partly because it's what we had around the house. Haven't read much of that in a long time, though.

Deka, I have a book on fencing that lists the particular moves. I use it for research for the Taleran series. But I haven't read anything else in that area. Didn't know much existed. thanks for the heads up.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I read non-fiction in spurts. Usually books that pertain to the lives of writers, books about cultural issues.

Tom Doolan said...

When I was younger I had a dream similar to your Rock Star dream, only I wanted to be an actor (Action Star, to be precise). So, I read biographies of actors (my favorite was Stallone: A Hero's Story).

These days, aside from whatever I have to read for school, my nonfiction usually takes the form of blogs. I should probably read more nonfiction. But fiction is so addictive...

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, I read nonfiction regularly during the school year but not much during the summer. I also find it helpful when I'm writing fiction to read mostly fiction.

Tom, it is. I haven't read many bios of actors. One of these days I'm gonna get around to do doing so

Deka Black said...

You're welcome, Charles. Indeed, is a aspect that atract me: using is a support for a few thing.

Steve Malley said...

Hmm, non-fiction... I'm kind of all over the place: history, biography, mathematics (as long as it's been dumbed down for those of us with just a couple years of calculus), science (especially, like yourself, psychology, biology, evolution and evolutionary psychology), travel guides and of course, art and art history.

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka, cool.

Steve Malley, I'm a sucker for physics books, even though I barely have enough math to make many of them out.

Ty said...

I've said for a long time fiction writers need to read a fair amount of non-fiction. You can get all kinds of ideas, and pick up some tips on writing as well as different ways to write.

Some of my favorite books have been non-fiction. Coming to mind are Capote's "In Cold Blood" and L'Amour's "Education of a Wandering Man."

Cloudia said...

Ah! so you are my 2 wheel cousin!

We girls had our own patch-

See my slide show of Hawaii bikers (including our patch) at You Tube:

Aloha from Honolulu

Comfort Spiral


> < } } ( ° >

< ° ) } } > <

Cloudia said...

Lana Gramlich said...

So sexy, MISTER Scientist! ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, I haven't read "in cold blood." I should. I did like L'Amour's book a lot.

Cloudia, cool, I'll check it out.

Lana, you sessy photographer.

the walking man said...

20th century *gulp* history.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, you talking about my series on beer drinking?

Paul R. McNamee said...

Nearly all my non-fiction reads are history. Biographies, autobiographies, and plain histories. Occasional rock-star debauchery & redemption tales, too, but that's still a form of history.

I have a large collection of "weird" New England stories - haunted happenings, quirky history, strange tales. I guess that folklore fits somewhere between non-fiction & fiction.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hi Charles,

Thanks so much for the writing book suggestions! I like all sorts of nonfiction, being the kind of reader who pretty much reads whatever is on sale at the Half Price Books store or Kings Books. Last book I read was on shock treatments and the one up next is writer's block. Maybe it's a theme . ... :)

Travis Cody said...

I've got an ever growing list of non-fiction titles that require my attention. I'd have to put some military biography at the top of that list, followed by several titles about WWI, and two more about the Africa campaigns of WWII.

So much to read!

Charles Gramlich said...

Paul R. McNamee, I do like the Rock Star Debauchery. some of it may be imagined history.

Michelle's Spell, yes, I'm not a real picky reader most of the time. I miss Half Price books. We don't have them here in Louisiana.

Travis Cody, when I was reading history, WWII was my favorite area. I don't know why it captured me so strongly.

jodi said...

Charles, I have been into non-fiction lately myself and have read memoirs of fading rock stars too. I love it when they totally f up but then learn something and end up fairly normal.