Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided. Fiction may not be real, but it’s true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths.
Yann Martel

The National Endowment for the Arts recently studied the reading habits of Americans, and one of their findings won’t surprise any bookseller: “Men are more likely to read nonfiction books than fiction, while the opposite holds true for women.” The NEA defines a “literary reader” as someone who has read “at least one novel, play, or poem within the last 12 months”. According to this definition, 47% of American adults are “literary readers”. So if a person (female) reads one novel in a year — say, Fifty Shades of Gray — she is a “literary reader”, but if a person (male) reads dozens of nonfiction books — The Boys in the Boat, The Innovators, The Warmth of Other Suns — he is some type of “non-literary”, inferior reader?

Like Nancy Pearl, librarian, NPR book critic, and author of Book Lust, I’m an omnivore when it comes to books. When asked how she chooses the books she discusses on Morning Edition’s “Under the Radar” segments, she said:

Simple: I just pick some of the titles that I’ve most enjoyed since the last time I was on, without concern for whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, genre or not, or aimed or classified as being for children or teens. Because I am an omnivorous reader, at first glance my choices always seem to me to be completely higgledy-piggledy, with no book bearing any similarity to any other.

So whether you’re an omnivore, a carnivore (nonfiction reader), or herbivore (fiction reader), here are some complementary sets of fiction and nonfiction books. (For a list of books for the confirmed carnivore, check out 10 Books for “Carnivorous” Readers — which includes Steven Rinella’s Meat Eater: Adventures of an American Hunter.)

9780804137744Interested in Civil War cross-dressing?
Nonfiction: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott
A rollicking chronicle of the exploits of four female spies (two Union, two Confederate) during the Civil War.
Fiction: I Shall Be Near to You by Erin McCabe
In this beautiful story of love and war, a headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband off to battle.

Want to read about work/life balance?
Nonfiction: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Sandberg’s book advising young women to be more ambitious received a lot of unfair criticism — much of it, I suspect, from people who didn’t read it. Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the recent book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Faa-window-opens-9781501105432_lgmily, wrote an excellent review in the New York Times.
Fiction: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
The clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture

Want to understand more about developmentally disabled young adults?
Nonfiction: An Uncomplicated Life: A Father’s Memoir of His Exceptional Daughter by Paul Daugherty
A wonderful book for any parent — through the story of the first 25 years of his daughter Jillian’s life, Daugherty reminds us of the precious gifts our children are, “exceptional” or not.
Fiction: A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern
In McGovern’s second novel for young adults, two achievement-oriented high school students fail to protect a developmentally disabled classmate, Belinda, at a pivotal moment. Belinda, who narrates sections of the book, comes to life as a three-dimensional character.

Think you need to learn more about why school shootings happen?
Nonfiction: Columbine by Dave Cullen
Cullen spent 10 years researching the events at Columbine High School, and what he found was that “most of what we ‘know’ about Columbine was wrong.” The killers, he points out, were not bullied — they were, in fact, bullies themselves.
Fiction: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
One of the most chilling books I’ve ever read.

Interested in the craft of writing?
Nonfiction: On Writing by Stephen King and Escaping Into the Open by Elizabeth Berg
Both are not only excellent writing manuals but entertaining memoirs as well.
Fiction: How to Write a Novel by Melanie Sumner9781101873472-1
Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch pairing How to Write a Novel with books on how to write, because Sumner’s debut novel is only on the surface about writing a novel. While trying to write a book, following the instructions in a writing manual, 12-year-old Aristotle stumbles upon some family secrets. Fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? will adore this smart and endearing novel.

Fascinated by World War I?
Nonfiction: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
This classic memoir of love and loss in World War I-era England should be required reading for anyone interested in that time period.
Fiction: The Absolutist by John Boyne and A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry
I love both of these books so much that I can’t decide which is my favorite World War I novel. (Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, is a runner-up.) Both are beautifully written and almost unbearably sad.

9780061958274Are you a Little House on the Prairie fan?
Nonfiction: Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Pamela Smith Hill
Hill, the author of a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited Wilder’s memoir — which is really a rough draft of the Little House books. An article in the Los Angeles Times points out that the Little House series was written for children, and Wilder’s memoir “would have been rated R for violence and adult content.”
Fiction: Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Lee Lien, daughter of hardworking Vietnamese immigrants, is a newly minted Ph.D. in English literature with no job who finds a mysterious gold brooch belonging to her mother — an item that may have belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Curious about reclusive authors?
Nonfiction: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
Actually, Salinger doesn’t show up much in Rakoff’s memoir of her stint as a famously eccentric literary agent, but his brief appearances are memorable — and so is the book.
Fiction: & Sons by David Gilbert
A big, fat novel centering on A.N. Dyer — a reclusive writer reminiscent of J.D. Salinger. If you like Jonathan Franzen, you’ll like this. There’s a lot going on — a novel within a novel, lots of characters, and even a touch of science fiction.

9781101872871What happens when cultural and religious differences collide with modern medicine?
Nonfiction: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
Published almost 20 years ago, this award-winning book — one of my “top 10” works of narrative nonfiction — includes a new afterword with updates on the characters and on the author herself.
Fiction: The Children Act by Ian McEwan
The morally complex and emotionally resonant story of a London family court judge who must make a decision about whether to order a lifesaving blood transfusion for a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness.

What was it like to live through Hurricane Katrina?
Nonfiction: Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
The author is a physician and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who’s written a gripping account of the life-and-death decisions medical staff at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans were forced to make during Hurricane Katrina.
Fiction: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
The 2011 National Book Award for fiction, set in Mississippi just before and during Hurricane Katrina, has ‘the aura of a classic”, according to Ron Charles of the Washington Post.


27 thoughts on “Matchmaking: 10 Nonfiction/Fiction Pairs

  1. That is interesting that NEA has that definition of a literary reader, especially when the line between non-fiction and fiction can get blurred (e.g. novels that hew close to autobiography / history), and when there are some very artistic nonfiction reads out there.

    Some great thematic pairings – the last two books have been on my to-read list for a while.

    1. I agree with you about the blurry line between fiction and nonfiction. I’m not sure why the NEA feels the need to define “literary” reading. I feel this starts in grade school, when kids (boys, especially) are made to feel like inferior readers if they enjoy reading about factual things more than they enjoy fiction.

  2. So many great pairs! I hadn’t thought about matching up Unfinished Business, but that’s definitely a common theme in fiction. And I love the pairing of Five Days and Memorial with Salvage the Bones.

  3. Thorough and fabulous! Thank you. I don’t think I was aware that Salvage the Bones was linked to Katrina and I absolutely love Ian McEwan – I am off to move those up my list.

    1. I am fascinated by World War I. A Long Long Way is beautifully written — very poetic. Sebastian Barry follows the same Irish family through a series of books — you don’t have to read them in any sort of order, but they’re all connected. I’d definitely start with A Long Long Way. Please let me know what you think!

  4. I’m especially excited about your first two pairings, because they’re both nonfiction books I loved paired with fiction books I haven’t read yet, but now want to check out!

  5. Salvage the Bones was such a powerful read. I’ve been meaning to read Five Days at Memorial, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to wreck me for a while.

  6. I love this pairing concept, and while I will add many new books to my TBR list, How to Write a Novel goes at the very top!

  7. Oooh, yes, agree with Molly. How To Write A Novel goes to the very top but for me, it’s more because you said it was similar to Where’d You Go Bernadette, which I really enjoyed.

  8. I have yet to try to do this part of Non-Fiction November because I was sort of floundering with what it should look like. Thanks for offering such a wonderful list (and a great example of how to do it).

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