I fell in love with reading at a young age, the second I realised that there’s much more out there besides boring textbooks. Needless to say, my nonfiction experience had a rocky start. So I stuck to fiction, to the point where I was convinced my brain wasn’t hardwired for the former.
However, I was thrown into the dark side as soon as I started uni, where each coursework and seminar prep required tons of essays, journal articles, and specialized texts. In fact, I reached a point where I barely have time for fiction anymore, during term-time. And… I don’t mind it that much.
So here are a few tips to get into nonfiction.
Stay tuned for a few recommendations at the end.
The best way to start with nonfiction is defining your target. You need to know the topics that interest you and the ones that don’t particularly do, but you have to learn about. Each case is different. As for me, I know I love all things art, history, and sociology. I absolutely hate anything related to economics, and that’s where my weakness resides. So what do I want from my next read? Do I want to enjoy it and go into it kinda knowing what to expect… or do I need to force myself to learn what a mortgage is? Depending on your target, your reading experience is going to be varying – the difference between pastime and schooling yourself.
I’m assuming you are here for the former, and that you want to pick up the habit of reading nonfiction for pleasure.
Many people have trouble with knowing what they should be reading. The perfect place to begin your search is to look what you enjoy as a fiction reader. If you like historical novels or medieval-type of fantasies, then historical nonfiction is an obvious choice. If you’re into sci-fi, maybe try some tech-savvy books, or even the ones regarding the environment/politics/ economics. You get the gist.
We might not realise this, but “nonfiction” type of content can be found all around us – from the articles we read on Facebook, to the podcasts or TED talks we listen to. Being insightful about these will reveal your next pick. Another tip: you might be surprised how many of your favourite content creators or speakers have published books of their own. Afterall, nonfiction is much more connected to the author.
Now, how do we actually read nonfiction?
I personally prefer listening, rather than reading. Audiobooks are gripping, they draw you in without you even realising. It’s like listening to a podcast.
But when I catch myself actually reading them, what helped me develop a more critical eye was always having a highlighter and a pen by my side, for quick annotations. Fiction is passive – you witness the unfolding of a story. The beauty of nonfiction is the engagement – whether it’s agreeing or disagreeing with the author. It makes the reader think. That’s why I consider consuming this type of content a great tool for self-development.
What might be dawning for the average fiction reader just getting into nonfiction is the need to finish the book. This might be the case for a story, but it doesn’t apply here. You can easily read until you lose interest, or go through a chapter at a time, now and then, or even actually finish it. I have a frankly masochistic habit of forcing myself to finish a novel. And it’s especially hard to put down a book with that pesky Goodreads yearly challenge. But the key to reading more nonfiction and gain vast amounts of knowledge is simply knowing whether it’s time to move on to your next read or keep going.
Now the good part!
Here are some of my favourite books. I’ll rate them 1 – 5 on the basis of how accessible they are to a person just getting into nonfiction.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (5)
This is actually the book that got me into reading more nonfiction. I’ve talked about it before on my blog, so you know I absolutely love it. The best way to describe it is: nonfiction, written like fiction. It tells the entire history of humankind, from the beginning of time to nowadays. It’s fascinating how accessible the writing style is, especially for such a hefty topic. Harari made the connections between events in human history so easy to understand, it was a pleasure to read it back to back. The book is extremely informative, entertaining, with a great sense of humor and a lot of “oh shit, really?” moments.
This might be the only book on the list I think everyone should read – it has everything: history, science, evolution, religion, art, warfare, bureaucracy, finance, you name it! Whatever floats your boat, you’ll find it here.
The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker (3)
It’s a wonderful intersection of two things I’m very keen on – art and social dynamics. For a history of art veteran, the book has a very stern take on the art vs/as craft debate, one that is as informative as it is critical. The only reason I rated it a 3 is because the average reader, not interested in art and stitching, most of all, might see no reason to pick up this book and rightly so – there are other less niche books about feminism in art.
As for this one, it was gripping, with an accessible language that made the reading experience feel like leisure. It’s also a great one for people interested in small histories. And, most of all, it contextualizes our current art climate when it comes to women’s place within it. I suggest reading it even if your views on the matter are yet indefinite. It’s definitely thought provoking and at times controversial.
Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe (4)
I was especially interested in this one, because I am an active person, which also makes me conscious about the way I eat. I also had a history with eating disorders. I went into this book a bit biased, as my views on body positivity weren’t the best. However, besides some criticisms of things I can’t get over no matter how acceptant I am, this book changed my perspective on the matter. To some extent, it transformed my mindset when it came to many issues body image-related. I discussed this thoroughly here.
I gave it a 4 because body positivity is a very current matter, something that has impacted many outlets over the past few years, and sparked heated, endless debates in the media.
I can’t say I agree with most of the things Megan Jayne Crabbe said, but it was a valuable insight into the world of body acceptance. I consider it worth reading. Next thing you know, you’ll be flying through it.
Essays in Love by Alain de Botton (5)
I’m not sure if this entirely fits nonfiction criteria, as it centers around a fictional love story, documented and analysed by an omniscient, omnipresent narrator. It’s both sensitive and sensible, a rare combination of critical and lyrical. Alain de Botton set out to find philosophical answers to some universally valid questions. It’s witty, humorous and enticing. And even though some criticise it for being pseudo-intellectual (mostly uni students, 2 weeks into their philosophy module), I found it to be a great introduction to seminal works in literature and philosophy.
You don’t have to be passionate about romance to read this one. If anything, it’s an analysis of human behavior.
Like most of Alain’s books, this can’t be missed!
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson (3)
This book isn’t for everyone, yet everybody seems to have read it. Jordan Peterson has gained notoriety by engaging in the political scene with some controversial picks on today’s social climate. I’ll take this out of the way now: I am a Peterson fan. Not completely – I don’t blindly follow him, but I do agree with most of the things he says.
His book is a bit more distant from his controversial opinions that put him in the spotlight. In many ways, it’s a self-help book. A very brutal one, especially as I listened to it narrated by Peterson himself. Nothing motivated me more than him telling me to get my shit together and climb that “food chain” before it’s too late. However, there’s a subtle Christian undertone that didn’t sit well with me. Well… subtle at first, it becomes more and more blatant as you progress.
For this reason, I gave it a 3. It’s nonetheless a good, informed, very well researched book with valuable advice. Moreover, Peterson has a strong voice both in his book, and in the media. I’d give it a try just for the hype.
Here you go! Hope you are now ready to dive into the world of nonfiction. I’m definitely still dipping my toes into it, but I’m on my way to becoming some obnoxious Übermensch who name-drops authors into every family dinner conversation.
Till next time, stay informed!