When I pick up any work of non-fiction, it feels like I should also be adjusting my thinking cap. I’m not sure what it is about non-fiction, but my brain is always wired to go in thinking, “this is a learning moment so pay attention and be more analytical.” No matter how compelling the narrative is, even if I love the subject matter, I almost treat it with this textbook authority, keeping an academic mindset for at least the first fifty pages. But here’s the thing. Half of the non-fiction out there is just as compelling, has just as much a narrative and can be just as poetic as fiction. I think it’s time that those of us who prioritize fiction gave non-fiction a second chance.
I’m not saying that most of us readers don’t read ANY non-fiction. But if you took the time to think about it, how many of you who prioritize fiction have read more than five non-fiction books this year? Even now, looking back at my list, I only read six non-fiction books this year, out of over 80 books. I definitely think we should read what we enjoy reading and what makes us happy, but why don’t we try incorporating more non-fiction into our literary diets?
I think the first problem comes from how we associated non-fiction in schools. I still remember slinging open the over-sized history textbook in fourth grade and falling asleep on page 327, because I had no idea what the teacher was droning on about, except it regarded the Alamo. The only thing I knew about The Alamo was that it was mentioned in Miss Congeniality. After we learned all of the whitewashed history, we took a test on it—which I usually failed—and moved on to the next big moment in history on the lesson plans. I don’t blame teachers for this. I think most teachers try to make things fun and exciting. But they aren’t allowed to go but just so far from the approved lesson plans, and so it comes at the cost of some enjoyment here and there.
Now that we’re adults, I think we can start to shake this negative memory out of our system and re-introduce ourselves to this lovely and expansive branch of the literary canon. The best part about non-fiction is that there’s so many choices out there. Fiction mostly comes in two forms: the short story, and the novel. Non-fiction has memoir, self-help, essays, history, science, etc. There’s just a lot of choices out there. I think it’s really important to give it a chance if you haven’t in a while. If you’re not sure what might be right for you, below is a breakdown of a few of the genre’s with a list of some titles to help you get started.
Memoir, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a narrative following a period of time in the authors life and most of the time the things they learned from that time. I love and hate this genre at the same time and for many reasons. It’s great when it’s done right, but not everyone who writes their memoir has written a great piece of work. But, if you’re interested, here are some of my favorites!
The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr - if you love beautiful prose, southern stories, a wild set of characters, or books about young girls and their experiences growing in a patriarchal society…this might be for you. It’s one of my all time favorites.
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen- This is a bit different from the movie. The story is told in vignettes and talks a lot about depression and suicide, but in a way that’s actually hysterical sometimes. If you’ve ever dealt with depression or know someone who has, this is a great read. Also, it’ll take you only one or two sittings to get through it, so that’s another good thing haha
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion- a great memoir about grief. I can’t even talk too much about this one without getting all in my feels, but just know that it’s worth your time.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel- a graphic/comic memoir that follows the relationship between Bechdel and her father. This is an amazing LGBT title, and she’s so smart without being uppity and I just love when someone speaks to a reader and not over them.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou- I don’t think I have to give any explanation for why you should read this perfect book.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood- All i’m saying is, this might be the funniest and most lovely memoir I’ve ever read. I loved it. If you grew up in a religious family, you will identify with this on the most real level haha
There’s plenty of other great memoirs, but those are the favorites that are at the top of my head.
this isn’t my go-to, but it’s still a lovely option for people who aren’t sure what to read but want something motivational.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo- If you’ve ever wanted the ultimate solution for cleaning up your house, life, and mind, this is the book for you.
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Ruben- People always ask me why I’m so happy. I won’t give all the credit to this book, but it did get me on a different level of thinking and really made me consider my own thoughts and actions regarding my happiness.
What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey- Technically, this isn’t a self help book. But, if you read this and you don’t find it helpful, then you didn’t actually read it.
I love a good essay collection! They’re always the best when you want to read something but just don’t have the time to devote more than a few minutes.
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham- I know this is a controversial title to add to the list, but I think it’s important to read essays from people like Lena Dunham. Her candor is surprising and brave. A lot of people who were really critical of this collection hadn’t actually read it. There are a lot of disturbing moments in here. However, I think reading this helped me understand a lot about this kind of persons behavior and interactions with the world, and that’s important. Plus, it’s a compelling read.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie- Everyone should read this. It’ll take you ten minutes. Just go read it now.
Feel Free by Zadie Smith- A fascinating collection written during the Obama era. If you ever wanted to see the difference between a pre and post Trump world, read this and then look up.
What Are We Doing Here by Marilynne Robinson- Great read for Sunday mornings with a cup of coffee. But also, take your time with these. Robinson is a great writer and doesn’t waste a word.
I should be able to suggest more in other genre’s, but I’m still getting to those. But that’s just a jumping off point if you haven’t tried expanding your reading avenues already. Are you mostly a fiction reader? What are your thoughts on fiction versus non-fiction? Leave a comment down below or visit me @shelfbyshelf on my instagram and let’s talk about it! Thanks for reading!