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Non-Fiction November: Reads Like Fiction

How is this already the fourth Non-Fiction November post I’m writing?! This week’s prompt is hosted by the amazing Rennie (@whatsnonfiction) and it’s all about how nonfiction and fiction sometimes cross paths!

Week 4: (Nov. 19 to 23) – Reads Like Fiction (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction): Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

Non-Fiction November week 4.jpg

I love it when non-fiction books sometimes take elements we find more commonly in fiction writing. A lot of people have the idea that nonfiction books are all about being dull and pretending to be very serious. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth! When a really good writer takes up writing non-fiction, the result can be super innovative and entertaining!

The best example of this that I can remember is a book I’m currently reading, Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. The writer does a great job at laying down pure and hard facts about England in the 1300s and 1400s. Dates, explaining taxes, how roads worked, and what fashion was like are all things you would expect in a non-fiction history book. But what’s surprising is that Mortimor creates imagined characters and places them in the story. Of course he still obeys what history says would happen to said characters, but it makes the whole book more dynamic and interesting!

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

Another example of how fiction and non-fiction can blur well is Alain de Botton’s Essays In Love. We’re never truly sure if the supposedly real love interest is actually real or just a plot and rhetoric device. At least I couldn’t say for sure she ever existed. But it doesn’t undermine the value of the whole book. What it boils down to is essays about the theme of love, and that’s what Botton delivers, whether or not the love interest is or isn’t real!

Essays in Love

Yet another example is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Man! Is there a non-fiction book out there that does a better job mixing non-fiction-like descriptions and fiction-like dialogue? I don’t really think so… Funny thing is that I couldn’t finish this book because I put it down for too long. But nonetheless, I recommend it to people who think that fiction and non-fiction need to exist separated from each other!

In Cold Blood

That said, I don’t expect non-fiction books to incorporate fiction-writing elements. When it does happen, it’s a pleasant surprise. But when it doesn’t, I’m fine with it. A very clear example of this is essay-writing. I read a lot of essay compilations on social politics and on writing, and so I never expect them to approach the topic in a fiction-like way.

A great example of this is Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin. Although this wasn’t my favorite book of essays and I think it was very badly marketed, I think it still deserves a shout out. Some essays are analysis of how Hollywood sees women and others are just essays on the writer’s own life. It can never be mistaken for fiction and that’s truly the beauty of it!

Dead Girls

A truly amazing book I think should be mentioned is What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. I love how this book mixes fiction-like scenarios (“what if dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct?” “what would happen if the moon went away?”) with real hard science. It makes me so happy to see books like this taking a fun approach to science and getting people excited to study it seriously! Ahhhh!!! Plus, it makes for an amazing gift for a science-fiction lover!

What If

6 thoughts on “Non-Fiction November: Reads Like Fiction

  1. Wonderful take on this one! It really is amazing what a great writer can do for a topic, how it can change your perception of it entirely.

    I’ve seen the What If book a couple of times now and am so curious about it! It just sounds so interesting. Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England sounds fascinating too, that’s one that I wouldn’t expect to be written the way you describe it! I love the cover too. And In Cold Blood is one of the best narrative nonfiction accounts for sure. Fantastic post!

    Liked by 1 person

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