Why I Read Nonfiction

October 12, 2008 at 5:58 am | Posted in Book Blather, Nonfiction | 3 Comments

They say there’s no accounting for taste.  (Actually Cicero said it first:  “De gustibus non est disputandem”).  Everyone likes to read different things.  I prefer nonfiction.  While I know it’s not for everyone, I think everyone would be well served by giving it a chance every so often.

First, why read nonfiction?  I believe our world has become increasingly complex, and with technological changes including the internet and smart phones, the most literate will wind up on top.  Reading nonfiction helps build that “brain muscle.”  I’m a big DIY person, and I think it’s also incredibly rewarding to be able to read instructions and follow recipes.  Surprisingly, not everyone can do this well, which is probably why we have the little cartoon Ikea guy with the bare butt.  And the Denny’s picture menu.

Personally, I believe it can hardly be overstated how important it is to stay informed on current events.  It seems that most of us either avoid politics (given our voting returns) or make political decisions based more on deeply felt… gut feelings… than on actual research.  Given the state of the world today, I would say it’s a thinking person’s absolute responsibility to drop everything and look for answers.  But then my life is so wrapped around my politics, from my transportation to my diet, that most people would seriously shy away from carrying that load.

How much nonfiction?  I decided to start breaking away from fiction from time to time when I was in my late teens.  I’d done the same thing in grade school when I decided I should read more than just sci fi.  To me it’s tremendously important to be well rounded.  Once I started, though, I found my taste for it increased, until I was reading almost exclusively nonfiction.  Now I’m swinging back the other way, and my reading is about 50/50.

What kind of nonfiction?  Honestly, I don’t think it matters.  The important thing is to know you have the chops for it when you find you need to be informed about something.  When I developed a thyroid condition that looked like cancer, the first thing I did was to pick up a book on thyroid function, and it was a huge relief to feel like I understood what my doctors were talking about.  A few years later, I went back to school, and I had no trouble at all staying on top of my reading.  (Getting up for my 8 AM Attic Greek class, on the other hand…)

What do I read?  I’m drawn to sociology, history, biography, and popular psychology.  I’ll read just about anything on personal finance, organizing, time management, or clutter, although I no longer have many problems with those areas.  I’ll read just about any memoir or true crime story.  I’ve read books on anthropology, astronomy, aura reading, birdwatching, conspiracy theories, economics, epidemic diseases, ethics, etiquette, fashion, linguistics, philosophy, politics, quantum physics, religion, travel, and writing.  I read a book on doll collecting, not because I want to collect dolls (on the contrary!) but because I wanted to know why other people do.

My man Rocket Scientist doesn’t read much, and when he does it’s generally fiction.  He says after a day of aerospace engineering, he just wants to shut his brain down for a while.  I’m a secretary, so for me the opposite is true.  I have a lot of curiosity about this world, and not a lot in the way of funds to take off and explore it.  Reading nonfiction is a way for me to stretch my mind and learn new things in the comfortable prison of my own living room.


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  1. Nice post. I read more fiction than non-fiction but I totally agree that non-fiction is important for exercising your brain. I’m a big fan of memoirs, esp when they are about a specific thing, like travel or cooking or their cool job. That said, I think any reading is better than none. I clearly remember playing Pictionary at age 12 with adults and knowing what more of the words meant than many of them due to a lifetime of reading.

  2. My appetite for nonfiction has really grown in the past 10 years, and so has my immense pleasure in reading. I’m sure there’s a correlation.

  3. I have gradually begun reading more non-fiction over the years. My non-fic reading used to be all about animals, a favorite subject, but lately I’ve been branching out even more. I’ll get on a roll and read half a dozen books about one topic (most recently food science and gardening) but eventually it feels heavy on the brain and I have to take a break back into the more easy & enjoyable stuff (especially fantasy!). You’re right though, it’s great for the “brain muscles”!

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