Sunday, May 17, 2020

Why I read secular nonfiction

I read a tremendous amount of books a year. I love diving into the written word and letting my mind and heart be captured by the stories that have been told. I have a deep love for fiction, and I enjoy curling up on the couch and letting myself be swept into another world or culture as carefully crafted characters are thrust into unexpected events. Fiction kindles my imagination and warms my heart, and novels ranging from cozy stories about small-town life to creepy vampire novels have entertained me for hours on end. Yet, as much as I enjoy fiction, there is a special place in my heart for nonfiction. Some people, like me, read a mix of both fiction and nonfiction books, but I have encountered many people who hold tightly to their novels and refuse to glance at any shelves organized by the Dewey Decimal System. Some of these people will make an exception for religious nonfiction, because they can see a direct spiritual benefit from exploring books about prayer, Scripture, and God. But secular nonfiction? What good could ever come from reading that

Actually, quite a bit. 

I used to avoid the nonfiction section of the library like it was my worst nightmare. Nonfiction was, I assumed, boring: a bunch of how-to books or dreary tomes about scientific discoveries. However, at some point in my teenage years, I grew exasperated at the selection of fiction books in my library. In the "teen" area, most of the books appeared to be about high school romance or sparkly vampires. I mainly combed through the shelf of Brian Jacques Redwall novels, but after a while, I felt a little frustrated by the same formula being used over and over again; I wanted something different. I found myself drifting over to the adult fiction area and began reading through Christian inspirational romance novels, but after a while, even these began to grow stale for me. So, one day, I took a step towards those Dewey Decimal-labeled shelves. And another...and another. This was a mysterious realm for me, so I reached for something rather familiar: Shakespeare's plays (which, yes, are often shelved in the "nonfiction" area, close to works of Shakespearean analysis and criticism). For a while, I mainly stayed in that aisle, while still moving back into the fiction area to grab novels to read or reread. Over the years, I began to let nonfiction books sprinkle into my reading stack occasionally, but I still mostly stayed in the familiar territory of fiction. However, at some point, I found myself moving into the nonfiction section frequently. I haven't calculated the totals, but I know that I read at least as much nonfiction as I read fiction, if not more.

Why do I keep coming back to secular nonfiction books over and over again? I suppose there are many reasons that contribute to the way I inhale these books, but overall, I've noticed that reading secular nonfiction has been good for my soul. 

In my experience, it's easy to discount certain perspectives, characters, and motivations in novels because "it's just fiction." Someone, somewhere, created a story and-even if it's a contemporary, realistic novel-I can easily ignore whatever uncomfortably tugs at me. However, with nonfiction, I can't easily fall into this pitfall. While the way that a nonfiction book is crafted can include artistic flourishes and a lot of creativity, the story itself is true. I am faced with perspectives, characters, and motivations that may cause me to squirm as I am faced with my own prejudices, and I can't discount the book as "just fiction"-because it's not.

In my experience, it's also easy to get swept up in a novel and escape to a far-off land while still retaining your own deep attachment to how things are done in your hyper-local community. The stories that take place in lush settings or in time periods long ago are engaging, but they are so far removed from your own daily life that you can easily recall that these are "just fiction." 

As I've read thousands of pages of nonfiction over the past couple years, I've been faced with perspectives that are vastly different from my own. From learning about French parenting philosophies to diving into the legacy of a famous generations-old family company, I've encountered fascinating ideas that are much different from what I grew up with. Seeking to respectfully listen to the real voices and stories portrayed in these texts, I've discovered myself growing in compassion, empathy, and understanding. While I used to grow very annoyed at officials who were reluctant to declare "snow days" for school, I find myself sympathizing with their difficult choices a lot more now, since reading a memoir by a Homeland Security advisor. While I used to shrug my shoulders with indifference towards many government assistance programs, I now experience a lot more gratitude for them as I read and learn about the struggles that many single moms face. I've been hit over the head by the power of forgiveness and healing that I've read in secular books that share deeply personal stories from the authors' lives. I've also learned--in a whole new way--that the  world is a wild, wonderful, incredibly diverse place--and that human beings have accomplished absolutely amazing things. 

Reading secular nonfiction has also helped me to recognize the humanity in other people. I've found it all-to-easy to look at someone I disagree with and label him or her as "other," and then stick that person in a box of my own preconceptions. However, when I read a book that dives into that individual's story and experiences, I find myself realizing that this is a fellow human being, a person with dignity who deserves my respect. Even if I disagree with some of that person's viewpoints and choices, I cannot deny his or her humanity. Furthermore, as I read the stories of humanity, I find my prayer being enriched as I remember that these people all have souls, stories, pasts, and futures--and that I can offer prayers for them. 

Just picking up a secular nonfiction book will not automatically make you or I more compassionate and loving. Plus, not all nonfiction books are necessarily going to be good for our hearts and souls (I've flung down more than one celebrity memoir that has been too sexually graphic for my comfort). However, if we tastefully select nonfiction books that will encourage and/or challenge us, if we open our minds and hearts to other perspectives and experiences, and if we recognize that there are numerous ways we ourselves can grow and learn from the many authors out there, then secular nonfiction books may truly benefit our lives. 

If secular nonfiction terrifies you, honestly acknowledge that feeling-and pick up a nonfiction book anyway. There are many, many wonderful books out there. Sometimes, I've seen people say that "I want to read nonfiction, so what should I read?" and I think this is a tough question to answer. There are several types of nonfiction books, many writing styles, and countless topics-and every person will have different preferences! So, pick a topic that interests you and look around to see if anything has been written on that subject. Ask your librarians for advice, ask book-loving friends for help (I've found that playing "book matchmaker" is terrifying, but also thrilling), or even just look through book lists online (when the libraries open again, I also recommend strolling in the aisles and looking to see what books are on display). Don't be afraid to put down a book that isn't working out for you; sometimes, you have to pick up several duds before you find a truly great book (and sacrificing your precious reading time on awful books is no fun at all). There is a huge treasure trove of stories and knowledge to explore in the world of secular nonfiction; we just have to be willing to dig around a little bit as we look for the gems. 

If you want to try out secular nonfiction and need some guidance, please also feel free to drop a comment! I try to read a variety of nonfiction books and can dig around my old book lists to find some enjoyable ones. I also get lots of my reading recommendations from Michelle and Anne-Marie, and I highly recommend looking through their blogs for reading advice! 


  1. Great post! I actually am a type of reader you didn't mention. I ONLY read nonfiction. I'm a very rare type. I have a nonfiction only blog (well I reviewed fiction many years ago but now it's nonfiction only) and I shared on my blog's facebook page your post here.

    1. Thanks so much, Kathleen! I am excited to check out your nonfiction blog-I am excited to see that you feature so many different categories of books! And so my reading list grows :)

  2. AnneMarie! I have neglected blog reading for many months, and am just now catching up. It is so delightful to be reading through your year! I love hearing your thoughts about books so much, and this made such a good point. I actually used to be opposite and read almost NO fiction, but found myself getting bored with the lack of variety reading mostly religious nonfiction. I just didn't know how to find good fiction (still a work in progress for me), but trying has really helped keep my pace up and renew my interest. Now I'm better at picking GOOD non-fiction stuff I'm interested it, and it is totally enriching. I've read such interesting stuff from totally non-religious angles, learned so much, and grown from it. Thanks as always for sharing your book life!