Reading non-fiction often feels, to me at least, like choosing the healthy option at a restaurant. Yes, it might nourish my mind and it might be quite enjoyable, but surely it won’t be as tasty as a novel?
Lately, however, I’ve been branching out and discovering some non-fiction authors that I genuinely enjoy reading as much as fiction. In each case, these authors manage to do something that the best fiction writers do, whether it’s portraying colourful characters, telling an engaging story, or exploring fascinating themes.
For characters, try reading… Ben Macintyre
If you’re the type of reader who forgets the plot of a book seconds after finishing it but remembers the characters for years, you should definitely consider reading some Ben Macintyre.
Everything I’ve read by him has been about WWII – a time at which there was rather a lot going on. But instead of focusing solely on events, Macintyre gifts the reader with colourful, insightful, and often humorous pen portraits of the main players.
The language employed to convey personality is often beautiful. Douglas Bader – a famous, flawed, disabled fighter pilot – is described as “a man with legs of tin, a heart of oak and feet of clay”. Paddy Mayne – one of the original members of the SAS – is described as “a man with enough personal demons to populate a small hell.” There is nothing dry or dusty about Macintyre’s portrayal of historical figures.
For plot, try reading… Tara Westover
I’m mainly talking about her bestselling novel Educated, but Westover has also written powerful and provocative essays such as I Am Not Proof of the American Dream and Is College Merely Helping Those Who Need it Least?
Educated shows that non-fiction can be crafted with the narrative clarity of a novel, including strong character arcs, good pacing, and increasing tension and jeopardy. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to create something like this from your own life, particularly if your own life has been a difficult one, but Westover shows it is possible.
For themes, try reading… Margaret Atwood
One of the main reasons I love fiction – especially literary fiction – is because it engages with big, complex themes that rarely get discussed enough in everyday life. It also tends to do this in an accessible way, without being dry or over-intellectual.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that some fiction writers can also address meaty themes in non-fiction. Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, does this frequently in her essays. She writes about freedom, memory, the power of art and the responsibilities of artists, and she does it all with passion and humour.
Have you read any great non-fiction lately? What would you recommend to someone more used to reading fiction?