Sunday, October 10, 2010

Non-Fiction or Novels?

Just saw something about E.O. Wilson's first novel, Anthill (which I wasn't aware of until today). Asked why a novel, Wilson replied: "People respect non-fiction, but they read novels."

This is generally true. I didn't realize until recently just how few copies of even a non-fiction "bestseller" are actually sold. Sometimes it's just a few thousand copies. There are occasional exceptions (a celebrity biography; a book that captures the public imagination such as A Brief History of Time) but when the masses read books, it is fiction to which they turn. I don't think my grandmother would have ever read a huge book about the space program, or a history of Texas or Poland, but she devoured novels by James Michener on all of those subjects. I never saw her even touch a work of non-fiction, though.

I'm a little different, because I've always been a reader of both. Maybe when I was a kid it was almost all fiction, but I soon came to have such a thirst for knowledge that non-fiction came to take up a major share of my reading time. Today, when I get into a non-fiction book I really like, I can finish it much faster than a novel (unless it's a very short novel) I'm reading. However, recently my personal trend has gone back to mostly novels. At least those are the books I am buying the most. Maybe it's because fiction still excites me in a way a non-fiction book can't. I love getting lost in the story, and I'm currently attracted to series fiction, books with endless sequels that allow you to never leave the world you've fallen into in your imagination, which means I'm purchasing larger quantities of fiction almost by necessity, and then keep discovering new series that intrigue me. There are so many out there that I could never find the time to read all the books I want to, even if allotted ten lifetimes, but I'm reading as fast as I can, and I'll probably die with a book in my hands. Who knows, when that day comes, I may be back on a non-fiction binge, and the book you find in my cold hands will be a 1000 page history of reading.

How about you? Do you read novels exclusively or do you venture into more challenging territory from time to time (not that a novel can't be challenging, but most of what the public reads is popular genre fiction)?


  1. I try to read both. Non-fiction isn't really complete without fiction.

  2. Oh, I agree with that, Zeus. I think it would be pretty rare to find someone who exclusively reads non-fiction (if they read for pleasure at all). I could be wrong and maybe there are people who just prefer "true" stories, such as biographies.

    On the other hand, there are millions of readers who only read fiction (and mostly novels at that; I don't imagine short story collections get much attention).

  3. That would be me...

    Outside of HS and later when young when I would enjoy fiction, I read exclusively non-fiction or at least things that are not written as entertaining fantasy.

    I read a lot of philosophy, history, politics, and science.

    I don't think I have read anything other than non-fiction in over 25 years. You could argue that some philosophy and politics is pure fantasy...

  4. We've talked about this in the past. I mix it up as best I could like you guys.

    I read a lot of periodicals and primary sources. History books en masse. I also read short-stories.

    About history. The more I read about the subject, the less I feel I know. It always intrigued me how people are/were so sure of their grasp of history.

  5. I once read nothing but fiction. I have a hard time reading a novel now days. I have tried to force myself a few times over the last few years, with stuff like Tolstoy and Herman Hesse. I pretty much have completely moved to non-fiction in this day and age. I just got tired of fiction. It seems redundant.


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