Nonfiction November: Choosing Nonfiction

Well, the weather is still confusingly warm, but nevertheless my calendar informs me that we are now in the month of November, which can only mean one thing, book lovers: The triumphal return of Nonfiction November!

Nonfiction November

This week is hosted by Rachel of Hibernator’s Library, and we’re talking about book selection techniques. To wit:

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to?

If all the nonfiction topics in the entire world were billiard balls on an infinite pool table, and you set one of the balls in motion every time you read a nonfiction book, and then you next read books about every billiard ball topic that first billiard ball clunked into, that would be a generally accurate depiction of my ever-expanding nonfiction interests. At one point (though I cannot exactly conjure up a clear memory of this in my mind), I only read memoirs. Then memoirs plus books about very conservative Christians. Then memoirs plus books about very conservative Christians plus gay history books. And so on and so forth, you get the idea. The more things I know, the more things I find there are to know.

actual footage of me at the nonfiction shelves in my library
actual footage of me at the nonfiction shelves in my library

Do you have a particular writing style that works best?

Wellllllll, I mean, I like a book with nicely done endnotes. On my Official List of Grown Adulthood Lifehood Policies, rule number 6 is “Always verify sources,” and this is obviously more difficult to do when the book is pop nonfiction of the type that doesn’t run to endnotes. When books don’t have notes, I never feel like I really know the information contained inside; I just feel like I at best have heard rumors about it. So although I do read nonfiction where the sources aren’t carefully documented, it’s not my preference.

Oh, hm, that wasn’t really writing style so much as citation style. Well, for writing style, I like it when authors can find a good balance between theory, data, and anecdotes. It’s a tricky balance to strike!

When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you?

Note: This gif is from the show The Good Place. The show rocks. Watch it.
Note: This gif is from the show The Good Place. The show rocks. Watch it.

If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

I no longer have any recollection what this book is, but there is a book on my TBR spreadsheet entitled The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse. In the “precis” column, Past Me wrote “EDWARDIAN INTRIGUE AND CRIIIIIIME,” with seven Is in the word “crime,” even though as you may know the correct spelling is with only one I. Is the missing corpse the duke’s? Why does he have a secret wife? Who is the murderer? Way to go, author Piu Marie Atwell, you have left me with many questions.

How do you choose your nonfiction reads, friends?

  • Haha – love your billiards analogy! That’s so true.

  • Kailana

    I like to try and read broadly in nonfiction when I am using the library, but when I am buying I go with particular subjects and authors. It just seems to depend on my reading year.

  • I didn’t read much non-fiction in my first five decades–hardly any, really. Lately I’ve been picking up a few memoirs and biographies and a couple of things Ron is interested in (he reads a lot of non-fiction). I helped form a book group to discuss a list of “ten books I wish my white teachers had read” but we’re at the point where we will either expand or die, because all but two of us are “too busy.”

  • Amanda

    Yes! “The more things I know, the more things I find there are to know.” That’s the best thing about reading nonfiction! And I thought the Dead Duke was great. Kind of a cuckoo story and not too long.

  • I super love your billiards analagy! I am all over the place when it comes to nonfiction, as well – I’ll read just about anything that sparks my interest.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Why Jenny, I didn’t realize you had such a long beard! I bet it comes in handy when the weather does actually get chilly, you can wrap it around your neck like a scarf. Don’t know why I never thought of growing one for myself in these Minnesota winters. I lurve nonfiction. How do I choose? It is almost just as random as how I choose what novel to read next, it all depends on what mood I am in and what topics strike my fancy. I just finished The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh a book about climate change and literature and just picked up Rebecca Solnit’s Faraway Nearby. I wanted Hope in the Dark for a little post election comfort reading but all copies were checked out of the library and I figured Faraway Nearby was the next best thing.

  • I can relate to your billiards analogy. Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed by all the things I’ve found out I don’t know about and now wish to know!
    Btw, could you tell me where you got that nice purple bag that seems to hold so many books?

  • Aarti

    I LOVE the subtitles of history related non-fiction titles! I have a book whose subtitle is ”

    Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV.” WHAAAAAAAT? Note the number of As I used there. The correct number to use in that word is actually 1.

  • Ellie

    I like your billiard ball analogy!

  • I definitely read more fiction than nonfiction when it comes to books – I think part of it is that I read the New Yorker regularly and a lot of my nonfiction wants and needs get satisfied by that. (I’m currently several issues behind because I was away for 17 days in late September/early October, and then I was reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but I’m looking forward to getting caught up again!)

    When I do read nonfiction books I tend to go for narrative nonfiction/essays, and/or books about place/home/travel and/or books about sex and love – I was just reading a review in the New Yorker of Emily Witt’s Future Sex, and yeah, that one definitely is going on my TBR list.

  • debnance

    Anything nonfiction that isn’t a textbook is good for me!

  • Alley

    Yes, I very much like your point about citation style because important. And I like your non-fiction reading path.


  • I’m the world’s most boring nonfiction chooser. I either go with stuff I see people talking about on Twitter/their blogs or, in particularly wild moments, stuff that caught my attention on NetGalley to the point where I said, “Hey, that sounds interesting but I don’t want to feel like I have to review it, so I’ll see if my library’s preordered it.”

    If my library has preordered it, I then put in a request. If they haven’t, I completely forget about it like the fickle reader that I am.

    I read soooooooo little nonfiction, though. Sooooooo little. I want to read more because I like learning stuff, but I resist because I know it’s gonna take me forever on account of how much time I spend arguing with the text to see whether I actually agree with it. Like, I’m currently reading THE PROMISE OF CANADA by Charlotte Gray, and there’s an excellent chance I’ll have to return it to the library partway through and put my name back in the queue because I keep furrowing my brow and saying, “But what are the biases here? Who does this leave out? How does this historical tidbit compare to all the other historical tidbits I’ve heard in my life?”

  • Well, first of all, The Good Place IS a really good show that everyone should watch. I mean, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson! Why wouldn’t you?? And second of all,I guess I kinda pick NF titles based on whatever I’m interested in. Like, art and food and cocktails. My real passion is fiction so I’m fairly picky with my NF titles

  • I definitely think citation style is important! In my perfect world, all nonfiction books would be as well cited as scientific papers 🙂

    I’d actually like to read in more of a ‘billiard ball’ style myself. I currently topic-hop without much connection. I find that I tend to learn information better when my books connect by chance though, so I’d like to start intentionally reading in a more connected way.