Nonfiction November 2022: Your year in nonfiction

My participation in Nonfiction November is usually a bit catch-as-catch-can – that is, I often don’t manage to complete every week’s topic – but I do like to start off as though I might, so here I am.

Nonfiction November, as most of you know, is hosted by several bloggers. This year, Week 1 – Your Year in Nonfiction, is hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, with the same questions posed for us to consider as last year.

I’m not sure why, but for this nonfiction-November year (that is, from last December to now), I’ve read about 25% more nonfiction than I read in each of the previous few years that I’ve participated. 45% of this reading has been life-writing, 45% essays, and the rest has been “other” non-fiction.

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

Favourites are always hard to identify, because I tend to get something out of most of what I read. However, if pushed, I’d say Carmel Bird’s Telltale (my review), because bibliomemoirs are always going to appeal to me, and when such a book is written by a favourite writer as Carmel Bird is, then it’s a no-brainer. I loved so much about this book, as my review and follow-up post make obvious.

Honourable mentions are many, but let me just name three, Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here (my review), because I am a fan of its subject, Elizabeth von Arnim; Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru (my review) because it increased my knowledge of Australia’s history and relationship with our First Nations people; and Jess Hill’s See what you made me do (my review) about domestic abuse, with particular exploration of coercive control, because I learnt a lot about something I thought I already knew quite a bit about.

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

Last year, I wrote in answer to this question that when it comes to nonfiction, my main interests are literary biographies, nature writing, and works about social justice/social history. Nothing has changed in terms of my preferences, but I should add something I didn’t say last time, which is that in terms of nonfiction forms, I do like essays, and there are always a few in my reading diet.

This year, the greatest proportion of my nonfiction has related to literature in some way. Besides the books by Carmel Bird and Gabrielle Carey mentioned above, I have read several fascinating essays from the anthology edited by Belinda Castles, Reading like an Australian writer. One of my posts from that book was about Emily McGuire’s essay on epiphany in an Elizabeth Harrower short story. It has proved very popular on my blog this year. I’m not sure why but I wonder whether the word “epiphany” has attracted search engine hits?

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Again, as I wrote last year, this is hard, because with nonfiction, even more than fiction, what you recommend depends greatly on people’s interests. I have, though, recommended all those books I named under my favourite nonfiction book of the year.

I have also talked much about my most recent read – which is also, really, a “favourite” contender – Biff Ward’s The third chopstick (my post). Given it is about a time my peers and I lived through when we were young, and given it is written with such humanity and heart, it’s natural that I expect to be talking about and recommending it often in the months to come.

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

What I am not specifically looking for is more recommendations – not because I am not interested but because I have too many books to read already without adding to the pile (physical and virtual). However, what I always get out of participating in blog events like this is book talk on topics that particularly interest me and, sometimes, meeting new bloggers whose interests are similar to mine (albeit, as with my book piles, I don’t really need more bloggers to follow. I hope that doesn’t sound unkind, but I think many of you understand the quandary! We love the book talk, but it also takes away from the book reading!)

Besides this, I’m always interested discussing wider issues regarding nonfiction and nonfiction reading: Why do we read nonfiction? What do we look for? What makes a good nonfiction read?

This year, with us all having come through a pretty tough few years, there’s the question about whether trying times see us seeking more nonfiction that might help us understand what we are going through or less because we want to escape into an imaginative world. What do you think?

48 thoughts on “Nonfiction November 2022: Your year in nonfiction

  1. I loved ‘Words Are Eagles’ by Gregory Day. Love of words and love of the land and love of the natural world – all entwined to form a language – written in this author’s glorious idiosyncratic style that sings, and sings the truths of the dark history of his part of the continent.

  2. I don’t read anywhere as much non fiction as you do – and certainly never essays. In fact the only essay collection I can recall reading was George Orwell which was on our school syllabus (50 years ago!). I did love those essays though.

    • Thanks Karen… I enjoyed essays at school but it’s really only in the last decade or so that I’ve returned to them, mainly through Orwell I think and Australia’s Quarterly essays.

  3. Bibliomemoirs!!! I think that word is new to me? I found a Listopia of those books on Goodreads!

    Telltale sounds really good and I’ve added it to my TBR so thanks!

  4. I think I read less nonfiction for pleasure in 2020 and 2021 than usual, not because I wanted escapism exactly but because my mind was already full of all the additional nonfiction (papers and textbooks) I was reading for work as a result of pandemic. I also think my concentration span was shorter than usual and I do need more concentration to finish nonfiction usually. This year it has been much more business as usual, for which I’m grateful!

    • Oh, they are interesting points Lou. I can relate to both those – to having our minds full of more than usual nonfiction, and to having a shorter concentration span then. I guess we are now learning to live with it, besides the fact that the crisis has diminished.

  5. I’ve been reading lots of books about American political history, for obvious reasons – and I love books of collected essays of any kind. My fiction reading has really been reduced this past year as I’ve become increasingly hooked on non-fiction. Not sure if this is a permanent change or some kind of passing fad!

    • Interesting Sue. I occasionally find myself drawn to nonfiction, even though fiction has always been my love. There’s some excellent nonfiction out there, and I do really like creative nonfiction, which can nicely cross the fiction/nonfiction divide. I’ll be interested to hear whether it is a permanent change or not!

  6. I love your caveats about getting recommendations and new blogs to follow! I feel the same, and I am careful only to add a few books to my wishlist each November. I do like finding a few blogs to follow as I don’t know many big non-fiction readers but there is indeed a limit!

  7. Looking back over over my reading since last November, I find that I read less of what most call nonfiction than usual. The books that made the most impression were a biography of Erasmus by Leon-E. Halkin, Joe Queenan’s memoir Closing Time, Noel Barber’s The War of the Running Dogs, a history of the 1950s insurgency in what were then the Malay states, and The Walls Around Us by David Owen, an old but very entertaining book about house renovation and maintenance.

    I did read a fair bit of philosophy this year, which one doesn’t usually shelve (mentally) with nonfiction. Philosophy makes for slow reading, which may account for the relatively fewer works of nonfiction.

    Why read nonfiction? Well, to find out about the rest of the world, and what one’s fellow humans have thought of it. There is a passage in Thoreau’s journals that says something of this, and I’ll come back with a link to it later on today.

    • Oh thanks George, I’d like that link.

      The Malay states history sound interesting, and I am intrigued by an entertaining book about house renovation and maintenance.

      I was just discussing poetry as nonfiction which another blogger included. I find that more uncomfortable than classifying philosophy that way but I take your point. I probably don’t mentally see it that way but if pushed to put it in one or the other I’d be tempted to move it in that direction but my arguments for doing so would be weak. It would be based in the idea of theory I think, but ….

      • I wonder whether nonfiction as a category is not an artifact of the way that American libraries using the Dewey Decimal system generally put fiction off on its own shelves, organized alphabetically by author. Would we speak of nonfiction if American libraries adhered more to the Library of Congress system, or the Dewey Decimal system in its full decimal rigor? On that library system, poetry is indeed nonfiction.

        I find that the quotation I had in mind from Thoreau occurs in a journal entry from 1861: the Gutenberg Project has the journals only through 1851. But I put the quotation into a posting: https://dc20011.blogspot.com/2022/11/the-history-of-his-parish.html .

        • Thanks George, I have commented on the quotation on your blog, as I see that blogger seems to have fixed the name/URL commenting issue that made me give up commenting on blogger blogs.

          Interesting point re Dewey and libraries. I guess that practice is just an artefact of making it easy for readers to find novels and for them to manage that section of their collection and readership. I don’t think we should define poetry as nonfiction and novels and fiction by what is a practical practice (can you have an impractical practice?) Dewey has the 800s devoted to literature, and that includes fiction, poetry, drama etc, but it also includes essays, letters, speeches, and of course criticism, too.

          I was thinking as I read your comment about, say, drama. Does this mean drama is also nonfiction? I don’t think so. Narrowly, fiction is imaginative prose, but I like Wikipedia’s “More broadly, however, fiction encompasses imaginary narratives expressed in any medium, including not just writings but also live theatrical performances, films, television programs, radio dramas, comics, role-playing games, and video games.” Plays are here but not poetry!

          There is clearly a disconnect – most definitions of fiction seem to limit it to prose that is created from the imagination, but most definitions of nonfiction limit it to “factual”. What about non-prose forms that are based on the imagination?

          So, for me, I will stick with my sense that regardless of library or bookshop practices, fiction is grounded in the imagination regardless of form, and nonfiction is grounded in fact – and will recognise that, given this, there is a lot of grey in between!

  8. I’ll be looking up The Third Chopstick (have only read In My Mother’s Hands by Ward and it has stayed with me, perhaps more than I anticipated when I wrote my review).

    In answer to your question – I think some people are seeking more nonfiction post-COVID (even though we’re not actually post-COVID…) because it provides ‘solid ground’, but equally others are the opposite and looking for escape. I don’t think my reading choices have changed all that much, although I have listened to more audiobooks than I used to and I think that was about listening to a different voice.

    • It’s interesting, isn’t it Kate, how some books stick when you don’t expect and vice versa. I’ve been known to remember very fondly books, only to go back to my post and find a reservation or two.

      Yes, fair point re how different people have reacted. I’m more like you. My interests are my interests. If they are changing, I’d say that’s more to do with age than anything else but even then, they are not changing much – yet.

  9. I’ve not heard the term bibliomemoir before, but I’ll definitely be using it going forward! I think the only book like this I’ve read is The End of Your Life Book Club, but I love a good book about books and I’d like to read more. I’ve also found myself enjoying essay collections this year 🙂

    • Thanks Katie. It’s a newish term to me but a good’un! I’ve heard of The end of your life bookclub. There are a lot of bibliomoirs I think and I’d like to read so many of them.

  10. I appreciate that you are taking the stance that you don’t recommend books willy-nilly to people. Rather, you consider what they might like, especially when it comes to non-fiction. I do always have a moment when I wonder, “Does this person even know me??” when they recommend a book they loved, but doesn’t fit my interests at all.

    I think in the coming years we’re going to have more nonfiction looking back at the last few years to try and make sense of it. I hope it’s at least five years out, though, because I’m leery of books that come out while a situation is still happening and suggest the author knows something we don’t know.

    • Yes agree that it is best to have some time under the belt for most things … though there are some exceptions. We want good information about climate change now for example rather than when it’s too late?

      And, oh yes re ‘“Does this person even know me??” when they recommend a book they loved, but doesn’t fit my interests at all’. I buy clothes online from a company and they ask you to review, including “would you recommend to a friend” and I always want to qualify that with some or many or few depending on the item!

  11. I gravitate mostly to Australian nonfiction …and will add
    Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru to my November 2023 Ausreading list and Week 4 post #NonFicNov “New to My TBR, thanks Sue!

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