What Makes a Nonfiction Book a Favorite?

We’re in the homestretch of Nonfiction November and Leann from There There Read This is hosting this fourth week’s topic of Nonfiction Favorites. Here is the prompt:

We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorite.

I have to admit that this one took some thought. It’s not an exact science for me. While the subject matter probably is the most important factor, I really enjoy it when an author has a specific lens they are looking through and makes that fact clear up front.

A few examples might be when a serious data scientist writes about romance and dating, in Dataclysm; or an engineer tackles something as mundane as a paper clip, like in The Evolution of Useful Things, or a historical writer tackles all of the insane (sometime literally speaking) details swirling around the birth or the Oxford English Dictionary, in The Professor and the Madman. All of these offer a unique perspective and some fresh light on the topics.

And, while all of the facts and data should be there and correctly referenced to give validity to the nonfiction book, I want to feel like I’m at a dinner party, sipping a drink, listening to someone share their experience and expertise. Non-fiction books get a bad rep because people automatically assume they’re going to be crammed full of stilted writing and beating the reader over the head with supporting facts. The bad ones do and often resemble text books. But put a creative writer in the hands of a good editor and you can get a real gem.

The last thing I really enjoy in a good non-fiction book has to do with page design. There has to be room on the page to make notes! And highlight and underline and circle and argue! As much as I appreciate books, I am of the mindset that to internalize what you’re reading/learning you have to chew it up before you swallow. This just goes better if there’s room for you in the book you’re reading. Plus, it’s just fun to pull a book off the shelf, after a few years, and skim back over your notes and thoughts.

Big maps and a good bibliography go a long way with me as well. Those aren’t ‘must haves’, like the above points, but for a nonfiction book to become a favorite, but they sure are nice. As much as I like a well cross referenced and annotated book, with a strong bibliography, I’m not really a fan of footnotes. I’d rather have all of the notes and “for further reading” information collected at the back of the book. That might seem picky, but it’s nice when you don’t have footnotes tugging at your eyeballs pulling you out of the immediate narrative all the time.

Hope your Nonfiction November is going well. Find a good book and stay warm!

6 thoughts on “What Makes a Nonfiction Book a Favorite?”

  1. Big maps: yes!! I get very cross when I read a travel book and there’s no map. In fact commenting on the additional matter has become a bit of a theme of the reviews I do for Shiny New Books!

    Thanks for dropping by to my blog today and I just had to add yours to my Feedly reader when I realised you’re in Birmingham … as I’m in the Other Birmingham (the original one)!

  2. I like your idea of looking for books where the author can provide a unique perspective. It’s not something I’ve specifically thought about before, but it’s something I enjoy too. Enjoyable writing is definitely important as well and the little extras, like a good bibliography, maps, cast lists, etc, can make a big difference 🙂

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