One of my favorite blogs, Normal Happenings, does this amazing feature called Daily Inklings. Every day, he posts a writing prompt and encourages others in the blogging community to respond. I have been meaning to try out an inkling for ages, but the opportunity has finally arisen, as the Stories in the End inkling allows me to discuss a topic that I have thought about often in the past: The importance of non-fiction works.
The prompt tells me to discuss my favorite non-fiction book. Well, it’s convenient that this inkling exists, as I recently read A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea. As the title may imply, this is a memoir recounting the author’s experience of leaving North Korea after decades of hardships. It was horrific to read, but so important and eye-opening at the same time. It isn’t long, as I think it came in at slightly under 200 pages, so I would highly recommend it to others. In that regard, it is my current favorite non-fiction read, standing alongside Night by Elie Wiesel, so that would be my response to the inkling if I were only to discuss my favorite books from the genre. There is so much more to discuss here, however, so I’m going to veer off of the initial topic.
As I thought about this inkling and which books I could discuss, I realized something: I almost never read non-fiction. Honestly, outside of a few celebrity memoirs, I could probably count the amount that I reach for this genre on one hand. It’s a strange thought, as I never purposefully choose to avoid these books and have nothing against them. In fact, I frequently state in conversations with others that I believe people sharing their stories with the world is incredibly important, and yet I clearly never follow through and actually read the stories I champion. Moreover, I know through conversations with others that I am hardly the only person to generally avoid these titles, even though we all have the best of intentions. Why do I, alongside so many others, ignore them if I am making no conscious effort to do so?
To Read or Not to Read
After a lot of soul-searching on my part to come up with a proper response, I think the answer lies within why I choose to read. Like many others, one of my primary motivations for reading is to escape from reality. Forgetting about my problems for a few hours by sticking my nose in a book is a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, reading as a form of escapism and picking up non-fiction titles are not world states that can overlap easily.
I read a lot of dark books because I tend to gravitate towards stories that involve complex moral dilemmas and deeply flawed characters. Murder, corrupt governments, and people in times of crisis frequent the titles on my bookshelves. Still, since everything I read is fiction, no matter how horrific the themes that I’m reading are, there’s this degree of distance that comes from knowing that the actual events I’m reading aren’t real. Even with historical fiction, no matter how accurate it is, I know that this is still a fictionalized recounting of events, therefore still keeping a thin wall between me and the descriptions on the page.
With non-fiction, there is no distance. I have no way of escaping into a non-fiction book because I have to be confronted with the realities of the horrific content that I’m reading. As much as I want to be able to stomach non-fiction books, I ultimately avoid them because I know they will make me feel uncomfortable and confronted by the realities of the world around me, even if I don’t actively realize that I do this as I’m choosing my next read.
Obviously, this is an issue. Reading is supposed to broaden my world views, and I do believe that reading non-fiction is one of the best ways to learn about specific topics. There’s plenty to learn from fiction and I don’t want to come off as someone who believes only non-fiction titles have value. I have learned so much about other countries, cultures, and historical events through the novels I have read over the years. Still, non-fiction is meant, by definition, to inform people through factual accounts of various events, people, and time periods.
While I believe I have hit the nail on the head with the primary reason that I don’t like to reach for non-fiction, I suspect there is at least one other contributing factor at play here. Put simply, non-fiction has a reputation for being dry and boring to slog through. I suspect this stereotype probably exists for the same reason that many people avoid classics, which is that people associate them with their schooling years. Growing up, I had to read snippets of various non-fiction pieces for my classes, and as I had no choice in what specific titles I picked up, it gave me this belief that all non-fiction is about as interesting as watching paint dry. As an adult, I have found several non-fiction pieces that I enjoy quite a bit, but breaking out of that preconceived notion is hardly an easy thing to accomplish.
It’s really a shame that non-fiction has so much going against it, however, as there are few better feelings for me than feeling informed on a topic that I previously knew nothing about. Until I read A River in Darkness, I couldn’t have told you a thing about North Korea outside of the various news stories that pop up once in a while. While one book hardly makes me an expert on the topic, I feel like I know something and may even further investigate other memoirs and historical titles on the country later. These moments don’t happen often to me, but I do deeply enjoy learning new things and non-fiction is a great facilitator of this.
Where does this leave me? I have identified two reasons why my non-fiction reading leaves a lot to be desired, as well as why I believe it’s so important to read from the genre. Ultimately, my goal is to use this post as a springboard to finding some actionable next steps towards reaching for the genre more frequently. Since I do have a great deal of respect for non-fiction, I want to make sure I am making it a regular mainstay in my reading. Therefore, it’s time to do some brainstorming!
In terms of having issues with separating myself from non-fiction because reading from the genre goes against my core beliefs of using my hobbies as a form of escapism, I think the best way to fix this is to start with some lighter books. Not every work of non-fiction is about genocides and serial killers, and I could seek out titles on different subjects. For example, I read a book earlier this year called Paperback Crush that was about the history of the young adult book genre. I learned a lot about my favorite childhood series without feeling uncomfortable with the topics being presented.
Of course, I can’t pretend that books on heavier topics just don’t exist, and for that, my best solution is to read them in smaller chunks. There’s no reason that I have to binge read a non-fiction title in a day if the topic is dark and makes me feel uncomfortable. I can break it up, chapter by chapter, over however long it takes for me to read it. That way, I still get the information, but in a more digestible manner.
Finally, I need to get over my belief that non-fiction is boring, and the best way to do this is simply to read books on topics I find intriguing. I could read titles on the history of various book genres, video games, or historical events that I find fascinating. If I’m not finding that a title is starting a fire in my brain with all the new facts I am absorbing, I should move onto a different subject and see if I become more engaged there. The point is that I have this notion in my head that I am supposed to be reading specific sorts of non-fiction books, but the truth is, there are titles out there for just about every subject under the sun if I simply look for them.
Now that I have laid out a few simple solutions to the issues I have with non-fiction books, all that’s left is to actually get started. As the ever-organized person that I am, I will start by posting a list later of a few pieces of non-fiction that interest me. From there, I’m going to work on reading at least one non-fiction title a month until the end of the year, where I will do a follow-up post discussing what I liked and didn’t like about this grand experiment. I really hope that doing this will start breaking down the barriers between me and this genre so I can learn to really enjoy it!
Do you have any suggestions for non-fiction reads? Let me know in the comments below!
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