Hello reader!

About a quarter of the books I've read so far this year have been nonfiction. I did a spot check of my yearly lists and found that my nonfiction reading ranges from about 10 to 25 percent. Memoirs and narrative journalism are my sweet spot, though this year, I've been falling into deep rabbit holes of American history.

That probably explains why I've been getting more than the usual amount of anti-nonfiction chatter. "Oh, I just can't get into books like that." "Nonfiction puts me right to sleep." "It's great that you read books like that, but I find them so dry!" Whenever I'm carting around science or history books, this is what I get. But good nonfiction is not dry or boring. It gives blood and guts to people long ago reduced to dust and a single sentence in a text book. My favorite example: The Philosophical Breakfast Club, a book about four 19th century scientists who were friends, sounds and looks dry as dirt, but these scientists all went to college together, and Laura J. Snyder fleshes out their letters to each other and shares stories about them drinking like fish and carousing like frat boys in between major discoveries. I laughed all through that book and read half of it aloud to my (very patient) husband.

I love fiction, but learned in third grade, when my teacher shut me down for citing a Little House book when I answered a question about pioneers, that nonfiction provides facts. And facts are what you need when you want to know what you're talking about.

Here are my tips for reading nonfiction: 

  • Pick topics that interest you. This sounds stupidly simple, but nonfiction is not the place to read a book because everyone else is. 
  • Know who's writing. Total objectivity is bullshit. Everyone comes at topics with their life experiences and beliefs. Check the author's bio, maybe do a Google search and read an article or two. Get a handle on where she is coming from. 
  • Read journalists. I am biased, but some of the best nonfiction I've read comes from people who have worked in newsrooms (e.g. David Simon). They spend lots of time with people, learn to write tight, and are, generally, curious and in possession of a sense of humor.
  • Let one book lead you to another. Check the bibliography for your next read. Consider a biography about the most interesting person in the book. Don't really understand an idea? Pick up a book about it. 
  • Avoid books with footnotes. Your mileage may vary here, but I detest footnotes. They distract me and it feels like lazy editing. If it's that important, fit it into the main text. 
I also like these tips from Harvard Business Review, which basically amount to this: SKIM. I've done that with particularly dense books, or at the start of books I read in their entirety to get a sense of where they're going and how they're going to make their arguments/narrative. It helps to have a roadmap as you read. I'd add that book reviews are great for getting a basic handle on a book.

I'll leave you with this excellent list: 10 books to read if you think you don't like nonfiction

— Hillary
Get creepy with us!

The next Make America Read book discussion is 8 p.m. EST Oct. 30.

We're reading Shirley Jackson's literary ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House. You probably remember The Lottery from school. This is just as dark. 

We chat on Slack. Email to be included. 
Book Club Guides
Feel free to use my Make America Read discussion guides for your book club or even to guide your own reading. (And if you've got a book you think we should discuss, let me know!)

What I'm reading

The favorite: Lincoln and The Abolitionists, Fred Kaplan 
The writing drags in spots — I didn't need a blow-by-blow account of Henry Clay losing the presidential nomination — but the material is good and provides perspective on Lincoln, his priorities and biases, and the world in which he acted.  John Quincy Adams is a Cassandra-like figure leading up to the Civil War; I really need to read a JQA bio.   

Up next: Dreamland, Sam Quinones
More nonfiction, this time for a local book discussion.

Read Harder: Check out my complete Read Harder list here

Reading links
The Snowy Day was inspired by a photo. And the author was white. And Langston Hughes loved the book. My boys and I adore all of Keats' books about Peter, but I had no idea about the history behind this lovely storybook

Lessons from Jane Austen for 21st century women

Linked story collections that are better than novels. Good recommendations — my favorite is The Things They Carried

Well-behaved women do make history. Here are books that prove it

Food and Books. Do you need anything else? (This restaurant gives you a book when you eat there!)

Reading lists hidden inside great books. Matilda basically was my syllabus as a nerdy kid determined to read all the classics. God bless, Roald Dahl. (Even if he was a jerk. Perhaps his editors deserve the credit.) 

Housekeeping note: I use Amazon affiliate links for books throughout this newsletter.
If you purchase books through these links, I will earn a small commission, which I probably will spend on books. 
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