Okay, but first, let me tell you: I like ALL kinds of books.
In fact, I have a book review blog — The Ardent Reader — which I have kept for nearly a decade, through marriage, divorce, kids, new beginnings, changing jobs, life, and love. I review fiction and nonfiction books on my blog.
But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, a long time ago, I stuck to fiction almost exclusively. This choice wasn’t intentional — I just didn’t know what I was missing.
Slowly, I intentionally began to broaden my scope and slide into some of the areas of the library I hadn’t yet explored. I already knew I loved history, but I quickly added memoirs and biographies to the list. I also developed interests in science, sociology, anthropology, civil rights, creative expression, and politics. For me, that list will continue to grow throughout my lifetime.
I’m well aware that I’m addicted to books. Truth be told, if you set me loose in a bookstore, I could empty my bank accounts and max out all my credit cards in one day. When I go into a bookstore, I want it all. And not just books with words in them, either. I want empty journals, book lights, DIY magazines, activity books, and coffee-table books filled with photos of nature or mosaics or the peculiar art of Paul Cézanne. I am a woman of many passions, and like Johnny Number 5, I require input.
A few years ago, I realized that my bookshelf (and my home, for that matter) can only hold so many books. And disappointing as it may seem, I eventually came to grips with the reality that I will be able to read a finite number of books in my lifetime. I could probably read two books a week, providing they’re less than 300 pages apiece, if I really focus. But I’m more likely to finish one every two weeks. At that rate, if I live another 40 years, I have time to read just over 1,000 books. So I’d better choose good ones.
But how can I choose? How could I make one single selection (or two) from so many beautiful, word-filled volumes with colorful covers and the author’s photo pleading, “Read me!” from the inside cover? The horror! The idea!
I started thinking about how I found some of the best nonfiction books I’ve read. What is my system? Do I have prerequisites? How do I decide which books I’m going to read and which I will set aside? What topics interest me?
I sat down and thought about it, and after digging through my brain, I wrote this article.
Here are 7 ways I’ve consistently found great nonfiction books:
- Look up people and events that pique your interest while you’re reading or watching the news.
Chances are, any icon or event—past or contemporary — is going to be the subject of a book sooner or later. James Comey wrote A Higher Loyalty after being ousted from his job as FBI Director. Barack Obama wrote The Audacity of Hope before he was elected president. I reserved a copy of Gloria Steinem’s book My Life on the Road after I saw her participate in a women’s rally, and I realized: I call myself a feminist, but I know nothing about Gloria Steinem.
2. Zip through the “documentary” section of Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, or another internet TV provider. Write down people or topics that interest you.
I don’t have a lot of time to watch TV, but I can listen to audio books in my car or at work. If I find a documentary that I’d really like to watch, I can be pretty confident that a book has been written on the topic. You may be surprised how many books have been written on one topic — the story of Emmitt Till comes to mind. Also, you saw a biopic that wasn’t so great (I think of A Beautiful Mind and Running with Scissors), then search out the printed equivalent.
3. Review the recommendations that Amazon sends your way.
This may sound like a lazy recommendation, but there’s something to those algorithms that seem to dig up some real beauts for me. I found Born Survivors by Wendy Holden that way, along with other gems.
4. Ask a [trusted] friend for a recommendation.
Besides the fact that it’s good conversation, you can get some solid recommendations from people you like and with whom you share chemistry. Among her many recommendations, my best friend Liz introduced me to Mary Roach, an author who dives headfirst into the scientific idiosyncrasies of space, death, sex, digestion, and a host of other topics. Her writing is informative and her delivery makes me laugh until my stomach hurts. (If you value your year-end holidays, be careful accepting book recommendations from family, especially in-laws.)
5. Write down your interests and go on the hunt for their equivalents in your local library. (When in doubt, ask a librarian.)
When I was actively reading a book a week for a year on The Ardent Reader, I found myself constantly being drawn back to specific sections in the library. My interests included history, sociology, biographies, crafts, and personal development. If you find a topic that piques your interest, select a couple of books from different authors. Everybody has a different style of writing, and one may bore you to death, while another will keep you wildly entertained.
6. Physically go to the library and look at the “New Books — Nonfiction” section.
Like everything in the library, new books (both fiction and nonfiction) have their appointed place. More than likely, recently published nonfiction books will be sitting up front. You’ll recognize their freshly wrapped covers, which look distinctly unbattered when they’re next to older library books. I found the audio versions of A Life in Parts by Bryan Cranston and Bossypants by Tina Fey that way… they nearly jumped off the shelf at me.
7. Don’t assume an 800-page nonfiction book is better than a 150-pager.
Just the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography — which was released with great fanfare a century after his death — is 736 pages and weighs almost four pounds. As a much younger, dumber adult, I paid $60 for that first book. It was so narcissistic that I refused to finish it. Now I keep it on hand to flatten curled-up watercolor paintings and press flowers. In contrast, a smaller book like Night by Elie Weisel is a true account that is formidable in its simplicity. If you try, you can finish it in a day. (And it’s life-changing.)
Are all of these tips going to work all the time? No. But this is what I do to find nonfiction reading material when there are too many choices. Which is always.
For me, one last rule always applies to any book I choose — whether it is fiction or nonfiction: If a book doesn’t hook me in the first two chapters, I set it aside and move on. You should set your own standards and parameters, but do set them. I probably begin four times as many books as I finish for this reason. Maybe you think this is a waste, but I only have 40 years left, remember? And that’s if I exercise every day and take care of myself. I have no time to waste on books that don’t interest me.
Well, there you have it: 7 tips that can help you find great nonfiction books. Feel free to let me know if these tips work for you!
P.S. — these are some of the best nonfiction books I’ve read!
- My Song by Harry Belafonte — Easily one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever picked up , and full of surprising anecdotes about famous people, like Eleanor Roosevelt
- The Innocent Man by John Grisham — a true story of a miscarriage of justice that resulted in a dead man walking
- The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch — the memoir that helped me better understand some of the more obsessive compulsive tendencies of my partner
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed — this book made me want to hike some mountains… immediately
- Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg — the story of an African Grey parrot who lived just long enough to put everything we thought we knew about parrots to shame
- Who thought this was a good idea? And other questions you should have answers to when you work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco — When I saw the cover of this book, I had to pick it up. When you see it, you’ll understand.
- Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance — Is there anyone left on Earth who hasn’t read this incredible book?
- Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik — The much easier-to-digest version of her life story. (I had started RBG’s own [sort of] biography My Own Words but the legalese was overwhelming)
- The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs — A man tries to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a year, and the experience is hilarious. Don’t read this if you have to pee, because you will laugh so hard you will pee on your seat.
- White Rage by Carol Anderson — A must-read if you want to very quickly brush up on your African-American history. (It’s disturbing, by the way.)
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