Nonfiction November 2021: Your year in nonfiction

While I’ve taken part in Nonfiction November before, I’ve never done it week by week right through the month. I may not this year, either, but I am starting off as if I mean to!

Nonfiction November is hosted by several bloggers, with Week 1: (November 1-5) – Your Year in Nonfiction, hosted by Rennie at What’s Nonfiction. To make it easy for us, Rennie has posed a number of questions, so here goes, starting with a quick overview.

I’ve read the same number of nonfiction works this year as last. However, four of this year’s were individual essays rather than whole books, which means I’ve spent less time reading nonfiction. The biggest difference, though, is that last year over 60% of my nonfiction reading was life-writing of some sort, while this year only a third has been.

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

Favourites are always hard to identify, because I like most of what I read. However, if pushed, I’d say volume 2 of Helen Garner’s diaries, One day I’ll remember this (my review), and not because it’s a recent, and therefore fresh, read. I like Helen Garner’s writing, and her her often self-deprecating openness. She engages us in her life’s journey, through her relationships and their ups and downs, her writing life, and her ideas about what she reads and sees. I particularly like that she shares her search for a form that suits what she wants to write, that is, what she wants to explore and express in her writing.

Honourable mentions are many, but I’ll just name Gene Stratton-Porter’s essay “The last Passenger Pigeon” (my review). It’s an early(ish) example of nature/conservation writing, and I loved meeting the author of a childhood favourite, A girl of the Limberlost, again!

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

When it comes to non-fiction, my main interests are literary biographies, nature writing, and works about social justice/social history. I read in all these areas this year, but literature-related topics have predominated. Besides the Helen Garner diaries, I’ve read two books in the Writers on writers series, Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings (my review) and Stan Grant’s On Thomas Keneally (my review), and George Orwell’s essay on the freedom of expression, “The prevention of literature” (my review). Rather different to all these, but definitely literature related, is Chrystopher Spicer’s Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature (my review).

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

This is hard, because with nonfiction, even more than fiction, what you recommend is highly dependent on people’s interests. However, the book I’ve read this year that has the most general appeal is Best Australian science writing 2020 (my review). Its focus is science, but most of the essays explore the implications and applications of science, particularly regarding issues like climate and the environment, and health, with some also raising the role often played by politics.

Besides this, I do recommend Helen Garner’s diaries to those who like Garner and are interested in a writer’s life. Finally, Marie Younan’s memoir, A different kind of seeing (my review), about being blind and a migrant, is both inspirational and eye-opening, as is Wendy and Allan Scarfe’s story of aid work in an Indian village in the 1960s, A mouthful of petals (my review).

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?  

Preferably not more recommendations, but it will happen! Seriously, I’d like to see some interesting discussions about nonfiction and nonfiction reading. Of course, our specific interests vary, but: Why do we read nonfiction? What do we look for? What makes a good nonfiction read?

47 thoughts on “Nonfiction November 2021: Your year in nonfiction

  1. That’s a difficult question really, what do we want to get out of reading NF? The obvious answer is knowledge, but I’d also say that I want some kind of insight… but that might be because my main NF interests are current affairs and history, and of literary biography which hopefully provides insights into the lives of my favourite authors. (That can backfire, of course, when the bio reveals that a favourite author was a horrible person. I’d rather not know about that!)

    • Good one, Lisa, I like the idea of “insight” rather than “knowledge”, per se. Thinking about this, “knowledge” is something I can more easily forget (if we define it more in terms of “facts”) whereas “insights” can be something deeper, something you take on board that can enhance or enrich your understanding.

      • It does depend a bit on what you’re reading, and why you’re reading it. When I’m using my Oxford Companions, I want the facts about an author e.g. titles and dates of books etc. But when I’m reading a LitBio, I want insights.
        OTOH when I’m reading Black History, I want both and notwithstanding an ageing brain, I want to remember the facts as well as the insights.

  2. On the literary biographies front, I’m guessing Leaping Into Waterfalls will be on your radar?

    Why read nonfiction? Some of my NF reading is work related (lucky I like my work!). Most of my NF reading is memoir and I read memoir because I’m always interested to understand a person’s experience. AS you may have noticed, I read a lot of grief memoir, and I’m always amazed by authors putting new words around a universal experience.

    • Absolutely Kate … Mears was great, as was Brennan’s book on Garner. Great title.

      Yes, I’ve noticed that you read a lot of memoir, and grief memoir in particular – and that this reading was related to your work. I’m with you in a way. I don’t read anywhere near as many memoirs as you do, but I’m interested in them for the same reasons you are. Grief memoirs interest me in particular, too. Some favourites include The year of magical thinking, and Paula, from way back!

  3. Hi Sue, I read non fiction because I want to know more about the subject that I might read about in fiction or in the news. History and biography books are probably the most topics I concentrate on in my non fiction reading. However, I have noticed this year I am reading more about nature, and loved Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. Did you know that IKEA is using mushroom-based packaging” Facts can be fascinating.

    • Thanks Meg … yes good point. There’s a cross-over I think in what you are saying between “knowledge” and “insights” and “facts” isn’t there?

      I didn’t know about mushroom-based packaging. Years ago I came across corn-based packaging so I’m not surprised.

      The other sort of nonfiction writing that I completely forgot about because I haven’t read much recently is travel writing.

  4. Some wonderful nonfiction out there, some already mentioned and deservedly so. But please don’t leave out John Docker’s fabulous three-volume memoir Growing Up Jewish and Communist in Bondi.

    • Thanks Deb, lovely to hear from you and that we have some alignments. There are some great writers in those areas aren’t there – passionate, and yet able to write with grace and style.

    • In case you come back: I wrote this on your blog, but it disappeared twice (once trying to use Name/URL, and once as my Google Account). It might have gone to moderation but it didn’t say so:

      “Fascinating selection of books Deb. I have had Bury my heart on my TBR since our first time of living in the USA in the early 1980s. I’d love to read it but it seems so long that finding time for it is a challenge.

      You are the second blogger to say they’ve read All creatures great and small this last year. What got it suddenly into the zeitgeist? I read it when it came out and loved it. I guess you could call it nature writing? Well, it’s about animals anyhow!

      I love that what you want to get out of the month is to read all those books. How many will you get read?”

    • Wow, Emily Jane, a book about lockdown experience already. Love the title Cauliflowers through the Catflap .

      A genre goal a month. That’s a fun approach. If you are not a big non-fiction reader you could choose some you like, like memoir or autobiography as a goal, but, really, why do it, unless it’s something you really want to do. Life’s too short. Then again, it might introduce you to a whole new world of reading pleasure you didn’t know was there!!

  5. Pingback: What Bookish Things Have I Been Up To This Week? | Budget Tales Book Blog

  6. Ooh, I love your thought provoking questions. Why do we read NonFiction indeed? I know why I do, its because I would love to go to school forever and I like learning. Lately, my NonFiction reads have taken the place of the advice and camaraderie that we usually find in the typical work environment since I am not experiencing that.

    Enjoy NFN!

  7. Most of my non fiction reading is travel writing. I love it so much if it is good travel writing. I have read Garner’s second book of memoirs and really liked it. I have the first one on my shelf yet to read and have just ordered the third one. It’s in a pile somewhere around here.

  8. Much as with reading fiction, my nonfiction interests are pretty varied. In general I prefer a focus on social science which is why true crime tends to feature, but I’m as likely to pick up other subjects like history, and general science. I have got a few years of the Australian Science Writing collections on my shelves now because they were suggested reading for my daughter who has just finished her first year of Bachelor of Science majoring in Forensic Science. As to why I read nonfiction- for very pedestrian reasons- mainly because I’m a little nosy, but also because I like learning new things.

    • Thanks Shelleyrae. Yes, when I say social history/socila justice, I would encompass social science in that – sociology etc. I don’t seek out true crime, but I don’t avoid it either if one is recommended because it usually offers insights, doesn’t it?

      I’m a little nosy! Love it!

      I have a niece who thought about forensic science but ended up in other directions. It would be fascinating, I think, though grim at times too. The two Australian Science Writing anthologies I’ve read have been excellent. I’d read more.

  9. Why do we read nonfiction? – Because if done right, it’s just as interesting as a novel. My favorite nonfiction is diaries and letters, but only if the writer is really good with details. Don’t just tell me “It was cold and rainy. We went to dinner and then home to read a book by the fire.” Where did you go for dinner, who all went, what did everyone eat, what were some of the interesting conversation bits, what book did you read and was there something interesting in what you read? Did you have anything to eat or drink while reading? Was a cat on your lap? A dog at your feet?

    Thanks for recommending the Helen Garner diaries, btw. They sound good!!!

    What do we look for? – I don’t want any speculation. Just give me known, proven facts. And make it interesting.

    What makes a good nonfiction read? – For me, it’s pretty much the same as with fiction. The subject does not matter. Either the author grabs me and reels me in, or they don’t! And I really can’t say WHY they do or they don’t!

    • Oh thanks Jinjer for replying so fully.

      Garner’s diaries read more like authors’ notebooks than diaries, but that makes them more interesting to me.

      Love. “Just give me known, proven facts. And make it interesting”. I mostly agree, but I don’t mind speculation when there are gaps in the knowledge, as long as it’s flagged as speculation.

      And your last answer is great too. I have specific interests, but I will read pretty much any nonfiction if it comes recommended as great writing and interesting.

  10. I like your question about nonfiction: Why do we read it? I guess, it might to some extent be individual what we want from our nonfiction. For me it’s all about new knowledge and inspiration / motivation. But I also see nonfiction fulfilling the same need as fiction. We just want a good story! Books such as The Salt Path or Into Thin Air are to me on par with the best fiction and can make me gasp, laugh, cry, sit on the edge on my seat, etc

  11. I don’t read non-fiction generally, but this year has been different. I have picked out a variety of genres in non-fiction and have been enjoying them more than I usually do. My fave ones tend to be related to history and I am looking for more recommendations in this area.

    • Ah Neil, interesting point but dare I say that that is traditionally a male question – men, in other words, not seeing the value of fiction. I’m interested in what you would say.

      My question was geared very much to those who love and value fiction. What makes us read nonfiction?

      • LOL. I won’t pare back to “Why do we read?”. I read fiction because I’m a sucker for a good story, be it one sentence or a thousand pages (though if the a thousand pages, it better be a really good story). I read non-fiction because I’m curious about how things work. And “things” could be objects, relationships, societies. Now and in the past. In the future, too, though that tends to be called “science fiction”. So I guess that even with my non-fiction reading, you could say that I’m a sucker for a good story.

        • Haha Neil. I wasn’t paring you back to that but to say that many of us fiction readers know why we read fiction, and given must bloggers who read me, mostly read fiction I wanted to know what they looked for in non-fiction.

          I read fiction to be moved, inspired, informed (yes), taken to other worlds I don’t know, and understand the lives of other people to help me understand others and to better understand myself. And, haha, I guess these are the sorts of things I most look for in non-fiction.

  12. What a good question: what makes a good non fiction book? Almost easier to say what doesn’t work for me. With bios/autobiographies I loath those that begin too far back in the person’s life (with their 3times great grandparents for example) or includes anecdotes they claim to remember from when they were about 3 years old. Another pet hate are books about historical personages where the author keeps saying “person X must have felt that….when basically no-one knows what they felt

    I look for a well written narrative – not just facts and figures otherwise it becomes too much like a textbook – and insight into the character.

    • Thanks Karen. My last DNF book was a biography just like that… Went too far back AND the writing was pretty dreadful.

      I don’t mind a bit of the “must have” but it needs to be relevant, feel likely and not overdone.

      The three years old bit is a bit of a challenge but sometimes your family might have told you things that you start to feel you remember. But for me, about 5 is my limit and only a very few memories at that!

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