BAND Discussion: How did you get into non-fiction?

The Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees (B.A.N.D) has a new discussion question for August, put forward by blogger Amy of Amy Reads.

The question is: How did you get into reading nonfiction? Do you remember your first nonfiction book or subject? If so, do you still read those subjects?

I was hoping that this question would be asked! It’s such fun to recount the discovery of a passion. I got quite into the ‘research’ for this question: school papers were unearthed, a high school books-read list was consulted, memory was racked, titles and authors were confirmed on the internet.

While I mostly read fiction books for fun as a child, I wasn’t averse to their factual brethren. I still have my worn copy of Discovering Acadia: A Guide for Young Naturalists, written and illustrated by Margaret Scheid. (My family lived on Mount Desert Island, Maine for a time, and 44% of the island is Acadia National Park.)

DK Books were a favorite nonfiction staple of my classmates and myself, with their characteristically pretty layouts and photos. My childhood nonfiction library picks tended to be about animals. I especially loved wolves and had owned a small factbook about them. When I was in 8th grade, I received a bookstore gift certificate for Borders and bought Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf. As I recall, I was disappointed in the book, wanting more wolves and less Mowat.

In 8th grade, I also read a couple of good nonfiction books that I picked to meet school assignments. One was a memoir of sorts called The New Year’s Owl by Susan Hand Shetterly. I remember snatches of it, like how she worked in a cannery in Maine, and her first tries at raising chickens. She has a new book out now that I had added to my to-read list months ago, not recognizing her name at the time.

I also read a book called Forests on Fire by Gregory Vogt about which the School Library Journal said, “Vogt has made difficult material accessible not only to teens, but to anyone needing a clear exposition of this complex topic.” I remember being very engaged in this science book, including its explanation of the Fire Triangle (fuel-oxygen-heat), and concepts about fire ecology. The book was also involved in a little bizarre episode when a trouble-making classmate stole it from my possession, led me on a embarrassingly futile chase in the library when I tried to get it back, and then she hid it in her locker for at least a day. I guess she knew taking a library book from me would push my buttons.

In high school, I joined a book club that mostly consisted of teachers. We read a couple of nonfiction books, including Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. We also chose the autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchu at about the time that its veracity was challenged. I actually don’t think I finished that one.

I was exploring nonfiction on my own time too, with a taste for memoirs. Titles that I remember or that I found from an old reading list include: We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese by Elizabeth M. Norman; Looking for Lost Bird: A Jewish Woman Discovers Her Navajo Roots by Yvette Melanson; The Color of Water by James McBride.

I had less luck with biographies. I remember picking up a Nellie Bly biography from my public library’s shelves and being utterly bored with it, despite the fact that I had found Nellie Bly fascinating when I learned about her in school. I must admit, I think my avoidance of biography traces back to this one book.

Strangely enough, my first thought when I read this month’s question was: The Perfect Storm. But I didn’t read that book until my freshman year of college, according to my reading journal. And clearly, I had been reading nonfiction well before that. However, I think Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm was the first nonfiction book that I adored, with the added boost of a nascent adult’s passion. I have only read it that one time but the memory of reading it is strong. I remember finding Junger’s description of drowning so intense that I had to put the book down. Junger was probably the first nonfiction author who I ‘followed up’ with, by reading his book Fire a year later. You could say I had a bit of a fan crush on Junger.

So, my love of nonfiction continued into adulthood. I took a class that was entirely devoted to reading and writing memoirs. I wrote my English major senior thesis on autobiography. In my current nonfiction reading, I continue to gravitate toward books about nature and the environment and I still read memoirs.

For my blog readers, how would you respond to the discussion question?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “BAND Discussion: How did you get into non-fiction?

  1. Great, wide-ranging interests! Your love of the forest fire science book and also of Sebastian Junger’s writing make me think you’d also like “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean. It’s one of my favorite books in the entire world.

  2. Thanks for your comprehensive and in-depth answer! So fantastic that you know all of this from your early years. I wish I had any record of what I read or better memory. Really interesting journey, and interesting note about biographies. Definitely an interesting point that they are often so very different from memoirs.

  3. Unfortunately, I really only enjoy “lite” non-fiction.

  4. Unruly Reader – Thanks for the recommendation! I will add it to my to-read list. 🙂

    Amy – My recollection of these books was greatly helped by having a record or even the book itself on hand, and these helped stoke more memories of other books read. I do feel that I should give biographies another shot – I just need to select a very good one to start.

    Kathy – As much as I would love to convert others into rampant non-fiction reading, I definitely get how we are all sustained by books in different ways.

  5. Jennifer Benson

    I loved Discovering Acadia as we were growing up – thanks for memory lane and I am going to start checking your blog a little more often now:)

  6. Ah, memoir class.
    I’d answer this question with “The Perfectionist” by Rudolph Chelminski, about the Michelin-star-winning French chef Bernard Loiseau, who killed himself in 2003. I read it from the Mount Pleasant Library in D.C., which is an important fact because I only ended up reading a biography because I couldn’t figure out how the stacks worked or where the fiction was and I didn’t want to seem stupid and ask. So I picked random books from the biography section near the back left of the library. I finished The Perfectionist after renewing the loan twice and then on the final day (9 weeks after checking it out, that is) I brought it back to the library, sat in a wooden chair in what turned out to be the fiction section, and read the book from pg. 75 to the end.
    Of course, that wasn’t my first nonfiction book, but as you say, it was the first one I adored. It was the first book I laughed out loud at in a library while sitting on a wooden (not very comfortable) chair, and it was the first in a now-lengthy string of nonfiction books, biographies, and books about chefs and food that I went on to read. And I recommend the experience to everyone who dislikes nonfiction/biographies/books about chefs and food: total immersion is the only way. I learned by Stockholm Syndrome.

  7. Alicia – that is an awesome story. Since I tend to avoid biographies, maybe I should employ a mind-trick on myself and tell myself that there are only biographies in the library, nothing else, and then I’ll actually pick a few up.

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