05 Apr Why I love non-fiction writing
The spine of a book carries the story of its readers.
Looking at my bookcases at home, it’s obvious to tell which books have been read over and over – just look for the cracked spines and ripped covers.
I give my books a hard life, particularly if I love them.
It’s not from neglect or cruelty. It’s from the passionate embracing of words that have entranced me, picking them up again to inhale their magic.
It’s a habit. Stoked by time. And most often indulged with non-fiction, which I turn to especially when I’m writing fiction as a kind of palate cleanser and mind widener.
Here are three non-fiction books that – based on the amount of wear and tear I have inflicted on them – I can recommend:
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
The First World War (or the Great War) was a catastrophic event that killed millions of people and utterly redefined our world.
But it all began with a pageant of miscalculations, hubris, arrogance, and utter buffoonery.
In Barbara Tuchman’s non-fiction classic The Guns of August, she expertly and eruditely depicts the first few weeks of the war, in which the seeds of ruin were sown on all sides.
It’s said that U.S. President John F. Kennedy read this book during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and was inspired to seek peace rather than drift into war as his European predecessors had allowed.
It’s heavy stuff, but miles better than a thousand other WW1 books out there.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
When I first read this book at age 15 it completely blew me away.
Here was a writer using the fiction techniques of short stories and the novel to tell a true story, thereby getting inside the hearts and minds of real people to bring their story to life beyond the newspapers.
The Right Stuff is the non-fiction story of the Mercury 7 astronauts and the early space race of the 1950s and 1960s.
But it’s about so much more.
About competition, ego, the need of humanity to stive in doing daring deeds, and the terrible costs these pursuits have on everyone involved.
But above all, it’s about glory – true glory. Where the pain of humanity is made godly.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
This is perhaps one of the most harrowing pieces of non-fiction writing I have ever read and gives me an involuntary shiver whenever I think about it.
In 1996 a group of mountaineers ascended Mt Everest and were struck by a terrible storm.
A deadly disaster ensued with terrible mistakes, miscalculations, and misunderstandings.
But there were also extraordinary feats of human endurance, compassion, and innovation.
Jon Krakauer was on Mt Everest to write a magazine article about climbing the mountain, and found himself enmeshed in the story.
The book is harrowing, controversial, and bluntly honest in its depiction of what happened.
Non-fiction writing is the equal of fiction
It’s said that there can be no science without imagination, and no art without facts.
This is why I see fiction and non-fiction on the same plane of artistic achievement.
It’s not enough to just tell a story, whether it’s laying out facts or setting out something imaginative.
The art is making it compelling. Making it mean something. Making the words tell deeper truths.
If a book can do that I don’t care for its classification. Only to put it on my shelf where I’ll add it to the pile that gets a hard life.