Let Us Speak Of Your Non-Fiction Reads

You’ll hear me say from time to time that fiction writers will gain more intellectual mileage out of reading non-fiction than fiction. Especially later in their careers, when you’ve ideally found your voice and have become confident with your own skill set and no longer need exemplars to lead the way. That’s not to say you shouldn’t (or won’t) read fiction — but non-fiction is giving you puzzle pieces whereas fiction is giving you the picture another author has already built with such loose pieces. Reading fiction can be in this way reiterative — you run the risk of treading water in terms of creative input –> output.

Regardless — point is, non-fiction? Good stuff.

My shelves are 75% non-fiction, 25% fiction. A ratio I expect to keep. (Though this is not as true in my e-book space. I buy more fiction in e-book for whatever bizarre-o reason.)

I’ve got books on mythology, warfare, sex, gun repair, culture wars, cooking, travel, Bible studies, fairy tales, medieval weapons, the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, Congress, the President, urban legends, writing, filmmaking, insects, weather, bears, birds, Hell, imaginary places, slang, parasites, and on and on.

What am I reading right now? Adventures Among Ants, by Mark Moffett. Quirky book about a biologist and professor who really loves ants and, well, wants to tell you about it. Chockablock with fascinating information about not just ants, but our natural world — plus, since he has to travel abroad to find exotic species, you visit with other cultures and in and of itself Moffett makes the whole thing one big adventure. With the ants as the star, one supposes. So, my question for you is —

What non-fiction are you reading (or have you read)? Doesn’t have to be geared toward writers.

Share. Spread it around.


  • I’m reading Game Change. It took me a while to get to it, since one neighbor is rereading everything Agatha Christie, and another neighbor is rereading everything Clive Cussler, and they all get passed to me. No one can call me “narrow,” I guess.

  • Currently reading “Stiff” by Mary Roach which is all about what physically happens to human bodies after death. Ditto what Barry Napier above said about Roach. She is one of the funniest authors I’ve ever read, but her books are also fascinating and informative.

    Before that was “The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements” by Sam Kean. I failed chemistry in high school and I loved this book.

    And my favorite non-fiction book is “The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary” by Simon Winchester. Reads like a novel and is one of only two books that I have read more than once (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” being the other).

  • I’m glad to see somebody advocating for non-fiction! Only one person I know reads non-fiction, and primarily only in her particular area of interest (climate change). A few of my favourite books are non-fiction, such as Wild by Jay Griffiths (incredibly well-written, moving and powerful) and The Writer’s Tale by Russell T. Davies and Ben Cook (recommended for fans of television, Doctor Who or writing! ;P). My shelves are probably 60% fiction, 40% non-fiction – the topics I’m interested in tend to make for ‘denser’ reads which I have trouble focusing on while I’m in school. I’m looking forward to tackling Collapse by Jared Diamond next month (I read Guns, Germs and Steel last summer). I also want to do some reading on politics and ideologies to find out what I agree with: sitting on my shelf waiting to be read currently are Manufacturing Consent, The Shock Doctrine, and When Media Goes to War. Generally, I like non-fiction that deals with ‘the bigger picture’, all encompassing topics that affect the world, I suppose would be the best way to describe it. I also love books about books, such as author biographies, the history of a certain book, etc.

  • I’ve found that anything by Bill Bryson tends to be not only informative, but entertainingly written. Especially: A Short History of Nearly Everything, and The Mother Tongue.

    • For those who like Bill Bryson, definitely seek out anything by Tim Cahill. Humorous and insightful travel stuff. Though, his piece on Jonestown is haunting (he was one of the first journos in after the shit went down).

      — c.

  • I just started reading A Concise History of the Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes. Interesting book. And a while ago I read Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis. That was a great book, in addition to the fantastic prose.

  • I recently finished THE FIRST WORLD WAR by John Keegan. It was sobering, to say the least. The most civilized nations in the history of the world decided to see who could slaughter the most of their fellow men, in the stupidest way imaginable.

    The saddest part? When it was over, the victory was not worth the cost. At least World War II got rid of Hitler.

  • I knew I married the right man when he bought me “Upstairs Girls: Prostitution in the American West” by Michael Rutter for our 10th anniversary. Found it in a general store in a town with a population of 15 while road tripping through the Rockies, and I just had to have it. It’s awesome.

    Also, I tend to stay away from actual textbooks in my nonfiction reading, but “The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying” by Despelder has been invaluable. It discusses cultural response to death and dying, grief and funerary rituals from across the world and across the ages. Found it through a psychology course on Death, Grief, and Mourning at the local community college.

  • I’m thirding the Roach recommendations — hers are more light, fun books, almost like collections of individual journalistic reports on a connected theme. She goes out and does/investigates stuff and then writes about it. Amusing.
    Also thirding the Skloot book on Henrietta Lacks — more attention needs to be paid to this.
    Right now I’m reading Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization: the West and the Rest”, which covers some of the same ground as Jared Diamond did but takes a different angle on it. It had a TV show too but I didn’t watch that.

  • I used to work in a library which meant I got to take out an almost limitless number of books at a time, and didn’t have to pay fines when they went overdue. Needless to say, this broadened the scope of my reading considerably. I read books on birdwatching, skyscrapers, nephology, trains, planes, automobiles, fashion throughout history, boat-building, illuminated manuscripts, the history of clocks, and an awful lot of travel books. It was really quite liberating. Right now though, I’m in the middle of a theology degree, so I’m reading about a lot of miserable dead men doing horrible things to each other. Not so much fun.

  • When wizards stay up late (the origins of the internet)

    HTML, XHTML and CSS for Dummies

    CSS and web design

    Apache server documentation (online)

  • I am a huge non-fiction reader – I think my bookshelves are probably 80:20 non-fiction to fiction, and I consume documentaries and those lifestyle programs that live in the strange dreamspace between reality TV and an actual documentary, and basically the one thing you can guarantee that handing me will net you a hug is a non-fiction book.

    I don’t even care what it’s about. It’s all knowledge.

  • I am in the process of reading _The Power of Habit_. It’s a non-fiction book about how habits work and how changing them alters how our brains work, how they influence how we live our lives, how companies function, and how corporations can use them for good or ill. Despite the self-help sounding title, it’s more about the science of habits and anecdotal evidence regarding them.

  • Two of my favorite non-fiction books are by Donald Miller. “Blue Like Jazz” and “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years”. Million Miles talks a little bit about the anatomy of story, but the larger emphasis is identifying our lives as stories, and just as no one wants to read a meaningless story, Miller challenges us to not live meaningless lives.

  • Just finished “American Sniper”, autobiography of the most lethal sniper in american history and… after reflecting on it and some info on the web, i wondered if he is just another Greg Mortenson, of “Three cups of tea” fame, that turned out to be a fabricator of tall tales. In the book, he even addresses the comments of some of his less than believing fellow seals who refer to him as the myth, rather than the legend.

  • “How Fiction Works” by James Wood (and several other books of his criticism – but this is the most valuable for writers.

    “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend” by Susan Orlean (wonderful history of the legendary dog and his time)

    “Why Orwell Matters” by Christopher Hitchens — Hitchens on Orwell — do I have to explain my that’s important?

  • James Kakalios, The Physics of Superheroes. I read The Elegant Universe and had a really hard time understanding it, so I wanted some basic grounding in physics before I tried Brian Greene’s other ones.

    I agree about the importance of nonfiction. It’s a great source for new ideas!

  • I’m presently reading several books on the US Civil War. Also Dinosaurs in the Attic by Douglas Preston. Also a book on knife-throwing. Some of these are for research. Some are just because who can resist dinosaurs?

  • I just finished “The Dip” by Seth Godin, and have read “Googled” and “Shallows” already this year. I think the psychology thing is just captivating my attention at the moment. I also read a lot of autobiographies, well, not so much read as listen to in audiobook format. I love hearing a writer read their work, especially when it’s about themselves.

  • I’ve recently read two marvellous books by Colin Tudge: “The Bird” – a book about all types of bird on our green earth, how they are related and how they came to be; and “The Secret Life of Trees” which is the same thing, except about trees.

    Full of funny, quirky and downright weird anecdotes and facts – written with a lot of humor, using delightful language.

  • I had a nice selection of non-fiction, but hadn’t looked at most of it for years. So when I moved in 2010 – and downsized – I carted most of it off to charities.
    Then I decided I was a writer.
    And have recently realized I need to read non-fiction to fuel the creative mind – can’t do what if’s without knowledge of what’s now, in science, astronomy, geography, sociology, massage therapy – whatever.
    So – building a library again. Starting a list. http://www.ravensview.ca/ravens/2012/03/reading-for-creativity-a-non-fiction-book-list.html

  • Just finished The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, which was a pretty interesting, light read. Definitely worthwhile, as it explores different people’s views on sexuality, which I think is useful to writing any romantic relationships, even if sex isn’t part of the story.

  • Most recently two most excellent books by James Shapiro,
    A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare which has a self explaining title and Contested Will, about the history of the Authorship problem.
    Also, not so long ago 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang, and the horror book The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch.
    My reading is most eclectic, from history (mostly Shakespeare and Venice, for some reason) to politics, passing through psychology and economics. And mathematics, great Prime Obsession by John Derbyshire comes to mind.

  • In preparation for a research paper, I’m reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen (2nd edition), and just out of curiosity I picked up Joan Didion’s Political Fictions. Also, in spite of the fact that most of what she writes is way over my head 😉 I really enjoy essays by Virginia Woolf.

  • Reading: Jared Diamond “Collapse”. Its about how civilisations though-out the ages have collapsed due to a combination of environmental factors and mis-use of scarce resourses – like our planet!!

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