September 5, 2011

In Defense of Nonfiction

I don't write nonfiction. At least, I haven't written any yet and I didn't see it in the near future when I looked at my scrying mirror; I have too many novels to write. Yet a defense of the genre seems to be needed in this day and age, both to writers and readers alike, for people are much more eager to read fiction now than to pick up a biography or even a "religious" book. The reverse used to be true, of course. There was a time when the novel was considered to be a frivolity and the primary books read by literate men and women were works of philosophy, science, history, and religion. Now the tables have turned.

This is not, of course, to say that I dislike fiction or that I read as many nonfiction works as I would like. I agree with Jane Austen's tongue-in-cheek comment in Northanger Abbey: "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." Novels can have many truths in them, and stimulating the imagination is a good thing. I would rather see a person reading a decent novel than flipping through the comics section of a newspaper. The classics, especially, are classics for a reason and (generally speaking) ought to be read and enjoyed.

But what about nonfiction? This genre seems usually to be reserved for the middle-aged and elderly, while younger readers prefer novels. Many read widely - classics, fantasy, historical fiction, what-have-you - but don't read nonfiction, not realizing how much they are missing by never reading a biography longer than a hundred pages or delving into a Puritan Paperback. Few people take note that if fiction is an ode to man's imagination and creativity, the real world is an ode to God's. And fact, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

There are numerous reasons why the reading of nonfiction is an almost lost art, not least of which is the argument that biographies, histories, etc. are dull and tedious. I think, however, that this is more a holdover from textbooks than a truth about the majority of nonfiction; after all, writing something like a biography is still classified as "creative" writing, which implies that the author puts imagination into the crafting of his or her book. Writers like David McCullough and Robert K. Massie are so skilled at writing that their books read with the ease of a novel while still presenting the facts in all their fascinating detail. Nonfiction certainly is a different style than fiction and one that takes getting used to, but it is no more unusual or difficult than the style of classic authors like Jane Austen is today.

"Religious" works (the term seems rather loose and open-minded, but I don't really know what else they might be called) are just as important as histories, if not more so, for they feed the soul. Yet if anything, they are less read than biographies - or, if readers do pick up a book on some aspect of the Christian life, it is usually a modern, insipid work about what religion can do for you. Granted, these are easier to read than Jonathan Edwards, but they are, as a whole, neither well-grounded in Scripture nor lastingly worthwhile. Books by the Puritans or such men as John Piper and Charles Spurgeon are a little harder to read, but provide meat for the soul rather than what my sister-in-law calls "candy-reading."

As a caveat to all that, I will say that I don't advocate that someone who only reads novels run out and buy Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Jonathan Edwards' Treatise on the Will. The best way to slide into a habit of reading nonfiction is to start with something relatively small on a subject that interests you. My first adult nonfiction read was Robert K. Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra... but it's over 600 pages and was a long, hard slog to get through. That was, by the way, not because of any deficiency in Massie's writing, but because I wasn't used to such big books. I made it to the end through a combination of sheer determination (also known as stubbornness), interest in the Romanov family, and love for Massie's writing. On the other hand, the excellent book Amazing Grace, a biography of William Wilberforce by Eric Metaxas, is only about 300 pages and makes for a much lighter read.

As for books on the Christian life, there are plenty of good ones for laymen and laywomen; they are not all as overwhelming as Karl Barth's Dogmatics or John Owen's works. (Which I haven't read. Just in case you thought I was actually smart or something shocking like that.) Some good authors are John Piper, J.I. Packer, and A.W. Tozer, and the series of books called "Puritan Paperbacks," put out by the Banner of Truth Press, are well-worth getting as well. Once you've dipped your toe into the water, you may find that the pool isn't as terrifying as you first thought.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with you, Abigail. I believe people should read both nonfiction and fiction. And I happen to be in the category of reading both. I love reading books about daily life in Victorian England, Colonial America, and anything about ancient Egypt. I've read Luther's biography and one on the writer behind Amazing Grace.

    Unfortunately, I live in a town whose occupants only like to read the sports section of the newspaper and does not delve into the literary world but decides to watch the sports channel and other shows that are highly inappropriate. I'm thankful everyday that I come from a Christian family and is being taught the Classical way.

  2. Nonfiction is one of those genres that I always thought would be boring, but over the past year I've explored a little more in that part of the reading world and actually found myself enjoying it. Try reading: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. So cool! Biographies are pretty cool too--I saw the movie "Amazing Grace" earlier this year(I think) and loved it! And I can't wait to read the book! :) I haven't read a whole lot of christian nonfiction, but I really like Janette Oke's christian novels.

  3. As a reader I lean toward fiction, at something of a 70-30 ratio, simply because, as you said, it's easier to read. Due to the narrative structure, I can march through most novels, even the dense, wordy ones, with relative ease (though Absalom, Absalom, Heller's Picture This, and, currently, Ulysses are notable exceptions). I do appreciate and enjoy non-fiction, however, and of course I recognize that there's a great deal of value in it as well.

    Obviously, as you mentioned, the primary genre of benefit is in theological works; I'll second your commendations for Tozer, Spurgeon, and Edwards, and throw in Lloyd-Jones and Sproul while I'm at it. I've also been reading a good bit of history and biography; I have your brother to thank for introducing me to Massie. As an engineer, however, I have to prioritize the sciences above the former two. Most of the material one will encounter on this subject will have a materialistic bent, but I see this as a challenge rather than a drawback. As Christians, logic, empiricism, and rationality are our domain, by virtue of our relationship with the God who by His very nature defines those things, and we should be prepared not only to meet our foes on those grounds, but to rout their desperate, foolish arguments and drive them altogether from the field. That begins, obviously, with a solid grounding in the Word, but also necessitates a thorough understanding of the arts of the enemy.

    Switching gears, as a writer my non-fiction output, whether book reviews or theological polemics, outweighs my meager attempts at fiction, in number of titles if not in word count. While I greatly admire those authors who can elucidate great truths through fictional constructs (Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkien, and certainly not excepting two young ladies I know), it's not my strength. I prefer to tackle issues head on, in plain language (ala Wittgenstein, and in particular despite of Kant).

    You hit upon the crux of the issue: "Few people take note that if fiction is an ode to man's imagination and creativity, the real world is an ode to God's." The arts are man's mirror of the world, his attempt to understand his surroundings, and as such there is value in any work that honestly seeks to come to grips with the strange and terrifying endeavor of living on this terrestrial ball, however warped, obscene, or outright blasphemous the conclusion might be, but still it is only a mirror. Every aspect of our reality, down to the position and velocity of each individual electron, is ordered and directed by our great God, and as such any examination of any aspect of His great work will provide insight into His character, and give glory to Him. Surely there can be no greater pursuit.

    In closing, let me recommend a resource for you and any of your readers wishing to try some non-fiction in smaller doses than, say, Calvin's Institutes. Arts & Letters Daily is a terrific website that culls articles from sources ranging from the Guardian to the New Republic, on topics ranging to every field of study. Make it a daily stop on your rounds about the Webz.

    "Truth of course must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves." - GK Chesterton

  4. I think if you ONLY read nonfic or ONLY fiction, your are being to narrow minded. There is wonder, adventure and excitement is either category.

  5. Londongirl - If I remember correctly, Harry Blamires makes a point about what is essentially illiteracy in his novel The Devil's Hunting Grounds. The subject comes up in relation to someone reading nothing but newspapers. I don't recall the actual quote, but the scene stuck with me. Oh, and interestingly I just put a biography of John Newton (author of "Amazing Grace") in my shopping cart the other day.

    Emily - "Amazing Grace" is an enjoyable movie, though riddled with inaccuracies, but the book is fascinating. I haven't gotten my hands on the author's newest work, a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I would like to.

    Jonathan - As usual, you make good points. I'm afraid I haven't ventured much into the realm of science, not being a terribly scientific thinker myself, but as I'm taking a course on the history of science this year I expect to be doing more. Dad's having me start off on Aristotle - hurrah and huzzah. By the way, have you ever read Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm? It's only mildly scientific in that it deals with a massive hurricane; it's more a biography. I found it a fascinating book when I read it several years ago.

    Good Chesterton quote, by the way. His quotes are easier to understand than his novels...

    Ashley - Very true. It takes some perseverance to get through the larger tomes, but it is worth it.

  6. Yay! Thanks for this post. I've mentioned before that I'm certainly better at writing non-fiction than fiction. Should I ever have anything published, it will certainly be non-fiction (actually, come to think of it, I have - my essay on Herodotus and Language which was printed in a South African Classics Journal).

    I confess I'm a rather hopeless reader of non-fiction. This may have something to do with the fact that non-fiction reading for me is equated with research and therefore work, whereas fiction-reading is leisure. But during term time I am compelled to read non-fiction and find rather little time to enjoy a good novel. So my life is divided into term-time: non-fiction/ holidays: fiction.

    I've always felt biographies, the well written ones, don't really "count" as non-fiction because they have the narrative quality of fictional works. Apart from biographies, I have discovered a few non-fiction authors which have a creative way with words that they make fiction enjoyable to read. Perhaps my favourites have been various works by CS Lewis and "The Language Instinct" by Stephen Pinker. The latter is by a non-Christian and and alas has some bits on the "evolution" of the language ability in humans, but apart from those parts of the book, his insight into the working of language is beautifully crafted and he unwittingly points to God's amazing creative power. His style reminded me somewhat of Lewis when we read him in 2nd year. It was certainly more enjoyable and enlightening than a text book.

    Ajjie >'.'<


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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