I was a #bookstagrammer for a hot minute. I really liked seeing everyone’s books, cute book pictures, and short reviews. About a year ago, I finally gave up on that account for several reasons, but one of the reasons was that I never really felt that I fit in with the bookstagram community. Those who do fit in will tell you it’s the best online community they’ve ever experienced, but there’s something they don’t mention: the #bookstagram community is overwhelmingly dedicated to fiction.
I have no problem with fiction, but I had a nonfiction account and there didn’t seem to be a place for me. I found it fascinating, then, that there was one nonfiction book that would show up on my feed time and time again: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. In my review of it years ago, I expressed that I wasn’t crazy about it. So while I’ve felt somewhat surprised that people who don’t even care for nonfiction rave about this book, I think I know why.
Sapiens is the only book in this genre that they’ve ever read, and they love it.
Just to drive home the fact that this six-year-old book is still wildly popular, I’ll share with you this post which was the first one to come up as I searched “#sapiens” on Instagram just before writing this. This review came out only an hour ago as I write, and it has a lot of the points echoed in dozens of other Sapiens reviews. This reader says, “I know it’s history but this is the first of it’s [sic] genre that I’ve loved reading. It might change your perspective to world, life, religion, money and everything that is there today!” Another review from a week ago says, “The strength of this book is in its readability.”
The self-professed nonfiction skeptic’s love for Sapiens demonstrates my first reason why reading nonfiction is fun.
1. If you liked Sapiens, you will love the other books like it
I’m not here to hate on Sapiens. It wasn’t my favorite, but I’m glad people like it because it touches on so many subjects that I think are both really important and really interesting. My issue with these rave reviews is, if you think Sapiens is so great, then why don’t you try some other books like it? I thought it was slightly funny that the second review I found praised its readability, because in my own review, I specifically said I didn’t like it because it was too dense.
As someone who has read a great deal of other nonfiction, there is certainly a lot out there that I think is more digestible than Sapiens. Take Cosmos by Carl Sagan, another book that touches on the history of civilization, or Masters of the Planet by Ian Tattersall, which also details how Homo sapiens ended up being the last human species to survive. I thought they were both more fun, less dense, and less… “well-actually”.
2. If you are curious about, well, anything, there’s a book about that
My TikTok feed includes tidbits on science, history, etymology, and generally fun facts. People clearly have a lot of general curiosity about how things work and why things are the way they are. It’s very common on TikTok for people to make videos admitting they don’t know how something works, like microwaves or sneezes, and tagging science communicator Hank Green so that he can break it down for them. I think Hank Green is awesome. He’s so smart and entertaining at the same time. But he’s said before that when someone asks him such specific questions, he just Googles them.
No one knows everything! I think Hank would agree with me when I say you don’t need him in order to learn things. You can be the person who people think is brilliant all because you discover things on your own. You don’t have to do this through books; you can find so much great educational content in documentaries, lectures, podcasts, museums, essays, and of course, by just Googling it the old-fashioned way. If you’re a curious person—and I would argue that we all are in different ways—you just have to find the best way for yourself to learn. For me, books usually work best because I can retain the information after I’ve spent time learning about it in-depth, underlining things, and writing reviews.
I also think that in many cases, you can find more information on more topics in books than you can in other media. Think about it: all things equal, it would be a lot cheaper and easier to publish a book on something than to produce a documentary. But keep in mind that there might be things to learn where books aren’t the best medium. For example, after finding etymology TikTok I wanted to learn more so I picked up the book Inventing English by Seth Lerer. The book was good, but I didn’t end up finishing it because there was a lot of phonetics that is much easier heard than read. I’m back to learning language history primarily through TikTok, and that’s okay.
3. Reality often makes the best stories
Take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt because I haven’t read a lot of fiction. However, I’ve seen my fair share of TV shows and movies, and I’ve found that there’s only so much that fiction can do. So often while I’m watching a show, I find myself saying, “Ugh, what a cliché storyline” or “That only happens in TV shows!” Maybe the shows I watch are all predictable, but it seems that a lot of them have the same tired tropes. That’s not really something that you find in nonfiction.
I like the way this blogger put it:
I love novels too. I want to read the best of the best.
But my true love? Nonfiction books.
Many don’t understand that. They assume that fiction books are more interesting because they’re not limited to the facts; novels can be about anything, limited only by the author’s imagination.
But as the saying goes, truth is often stranger than fiction.
And nonfiction books have much to offer. Different things. Important things.
It’s true. People do think that fiction is less limited than nonfiction, but in my experience with it, there are only so many kinds of characters and storylines that one can make. After awhile it can feel like stories have a lot of overlap.
Alternatively, consider the book The Jesuit and the Skull: Tielhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man by Amir D. Aczel. It’s a biography of a theologian and paleontologist named Pierre Tielhard de Chardin who spends his life struggling to be accepted as a Jesuit clergyman, as the church refuses to accept him because of his work in evolution. Not only did the book have so many things that interest me—religion, evolution, ancient human fossils being discovered and lost again to history—but it wasn’t the kind of story you would find in a novel. (Actually, as I tell in my review, someone did try to write a novel about this and I didn’t care for it.)
Along with Tielhard’s religious and scientific escapades, we also got a look into his love life with a woman named Lucille Swan. It was frustrating to read about, because they clearly loved each other, but he never really pursued her because of his vow of celibacy with the church. If their story had been a novel, he probably would have turned away from the church in the end and they might have lived happily ever after. But they never did become lovers, because he never reconciled his faith and his scientific work. Yes, it’s frustrating, but I like reading stories like this because they’re true and still incredibly fascinating. Plus I feel less like complaining about the storyline because the author is just telling us what happened rather than controlling it.
4. They didn’t teach you this in school
Did you know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell? Of course you do. It seems to be a running meme among millennials that we were never taught anything useful in school other than the minutiae of cell biology and the Pythagorean theorem, which only a small percentage of us use in our daily adult lives.
This is one of my—and Sasha Sagan’s—gripes with education: many classes and textbooks make things that are truly not boring seem boring. That, and they seem to leave out important history and very relevant information. As someone who attended school in Pennsylvania, I didn’t know that schools in the South teach that the Civil War was about “states’ rights”; I’m glad that I was at least taught that it was about slavery. But too much is still left out, and it seems that many of us are now realizing this.
Thus, a lot of people my age seem to be taking it upon themselves to fill in the gaps that teachers skipped in school. Other than omitting the fact that racism is part of the genetic makeup of our country, my schools growing up also never mentioned human evolution. I was lucky that I wasn’t explicitly taught creationism at public school. Needless to say, I’m using my twenties to now learn as much as I can about human evolution. It feels like a whole new segment of my education, but it’s what I chose to learn and can do at my own pace.
The books I like aren’t textbooks, either. Sure, they can be assigned as classroom reading, but they aren’t usually overly technical. If a book is too hard for me, I don’t waste my time on it. Now more than ever, topics that were once abstruse are being broken down in understandable chunks in books, podcasts, and even infographics. Liking nonfiction doesn’t mean you’re a snob or a nerd; it just means you’re curious and you care what’s happening in the world around you.
5. Nonfiction should not be boring
When I Googled “why you should read nonfiction” to see what others were saying in this realm, I came across a (now-deleted) post called Why & How to Read Nonfiction Books. The writer gave this as a way to “train yourself to read more nonfiction”:
Right Before Bed is a Good Time to Read Nonfiction
Books (those you do not want to read) have a magical ability to make you want to sleep.
Take advantage of that.
If you’ve been struggling to get off your phone right until bedtime, and then squinting to get a few more updates in as you slide underneath the comforter, here’s your chance to kick that habit for good.
Start taking your nonfiction dose (it only works if you’re reading an actual book… like a paperback or a hardcover, and not a tablet or Kindle) right before you go to bed. Or right after jumping on the bed, but before turning out the lights. Allow the book to make you nice and sleepy. You’ll get your nonfiction fix AND you’ll be over your phone addiction.
Kill two birds in one stone, eh?
Let me promise you something. If your nonfiction book is the book you don’t want to read, if that’s what puts you to sleep, then you’re not doing it right.
I know that a lot of people use books as a way to fall asleep at night, and that’s great. But then why not just choose a book that is a little boring, fiction or not, solely for that purpose? Learning about the Cosmos or the history of humankind or a true love story should not bore you. What’s more, when I am reading to actually learn and I find that I’m too tired, I stop for the night. I don’t want to miss anything or have to reread it later!
If the only nonfiction book you’ve engaged with was your high school biology textbook, then you will most likely think nonfiction is boring (or worse, that all books are boring). But as I’ve said, you can find a nonfiction book about anything you’re into. There are even some out there that make biology interesting; you just have to find them! If you don’t know what you like, then hit up your local library and find a title that grabs your attention. Then open it up and start at the chapter that seems most interesting. That’s another bonus of nonfiction; you can start in the middle if that’s your thing.
I hope that I’ve helped you to see nonfiction as the fun and captivating world that it is! This seems as good a place as any to recommend my fellow blogger Rennie at What’s Nonfiction? who shares great nonfiction book reviews and lists. I use her site to find new books to add to my list. And with all that said, I urge you to go find a great book, and learn something new today.
In those days, every encyclopedia entry I read felt like it was snapping in a new puzzle piece. I thought I might soon see the entire picture.
But as I grew, I realized the puzzle had no edges, no borders. It went on forever in all directions. Every new piece just revealed how many more pieces were still missing. I came to understand that I could never get to the complete picture.
So the metaphor changed. Instead of a puzzle, being curious became more like being a collector of small, beautiful objects, of which there are a seemingly infinite number on Earth, like seashells or stamps. I’d never have them all, but each new kernel of understanding was like a new, gleaming gem. When I learned something, I imagined putting it in a special box with my other treasures, seeing how they went together, how they matched or clashed. Learning became addictive, an obsession. Soon the urge to try to answer any lingering question was overpowering, each answer in turn eliciting another question, some parochial, some cosmic. The parochial ones are often maligned as ‘trivia,’ but every piece of trivia is a small clue to something else, a glimpse at how we fit into the universe.Sasha Sagan, For Small Creatures Such as We, pp. 74-75