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What Makes Great Nonfiction

December 30, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The best nonfiction books add up to a biography of our culture.” - Robert McCrum

It is difficult to determine what falls within the bounds of the nonfiction genre. Can we include cookbooks or dictionaries? Reading the dictionary is certainly a different type of reading than a chapter book or a textbook. And yet, all of these are meant to give us a better understanding of factual information. Dictionaries define words. Cookbooks instruct, but also, more and more, they offer vital information regarding a new tool, technique or ingredient. Philosophy texts offer perspective. All of these text provide an enriching experience, and clearly they are not fiction. So, what exactly is nonfiction?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines nonfiction as “literature or cinema that is not fictional”. That definition leaves the door wide open, especially in a world of evolving texts, like Twitter. Searching the internet for a list of favorite nonfiction takes one in a gigantic maze. Often lists are comprised by year, as in the case of this one compiled by the Washington Post.

But a list that records yearly bests, is not a very good indicator of the genre itself. Instead, this reveals more about the year or the internet search itself. For example, Amazon's list of best nonfiction is tailored to the likes based upon past purchases or searches. In other words, it will likely limit the results in an unfortunate way because it is often the unexpected that brings the most gratification and excitement. Also, lists that contain only recent books often do not address the historical discussion of an argument. While a contemporary book may be important, it should also be noted that an attempt to understand the previous decades or centuries of discussion on a particular topic will be helpful too. For example, I have recently been reading Plutarch's Parallel Lives. I am absolutely astounded at Plutarch's ability to create this important text, which is unlike any other. In comparing Greek and Roman leaders, he created a very valuable resource about virtue itself. He allows the reader to come to their own conclusions, but also offers his insights which allow the reader to understand cultural context, societal constraints and ways of viewing the world outside the self. The idea of virtue pertains to any human society, past, present or future. Plutarch's idea of virtue would complement a number of other nonfiction texts (or fiction, for that matter) in a discussion of virtue. While Plutarch is still discussed in various circles (including the Great Books) it has fallen out of mainstream education.

In truth, the Great Books canon includes some vital nonfiction texts. It is pleasing to see a handful of these nonfiction texts included in 2016 lists of great nonfiction. For example, this list includes George Frazer and Rachel Carson. The Guardian proposed this list, which contains Rachel Carson, C.S. Lewis, and others. It is unfortunate, however, that voices like Plutarch's have fallen out of the mainstream, when they clearly add depth to many important conversations. I invite you to pick up a book that may be out of date, but still pertains to an argument that interests you: education, virtue, love, etc.

As there are limitless examples of great nonfiction, this short list is based upon a number of the HMU faculty favorites. There are many texts that deserve discussion, but here is a variety that has pleased us throughout the years.

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff

The Ethics of Truth by Alain Badiou

Parallel Lives by Plutarch

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen

The Art of Eating by MFK Fisher

Plato

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

René Descartes

How to Hug A Porcupine by Julie Ross

The Dancing Wuli Masters by Gary Zukav

Digging Dinosaurs by John R. Horner

The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries by Edwin H. Colbert

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

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