Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to
possibilities; Truth isn’t.
Lee Gutkind, editor and founder of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction, wrote a book on narrative nonfiction called You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. Many of the best stories I’ve ever read are true — yet they are improbable, unlikely, and downright unbelievable. In an interview with Creative Nonfiction, brilliant narrative historian Erik Larson discusses the joy of researching and telling a true story that readers would find implausible if it were presented in a novel:
If you find the story and you get enough details, you can tell a good story. There’s a great paradox with fiction. If I tried to write a novel in which I proposed that the daughter of the American ambassador was sleeping with the first chief of the Gestapo, no one would believe it. But because it happened—wow!—this is interesting.
The difference between narrative nonfiction and other nonfiction (history, biography, politics, etc.) is that in narrative nonfiction the story is more important than the subject. I have zero interest in horse racing, for example, but I loved Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. The best nonfiction writers transcend their subject matter to shape stories that read like novels. That said, there are some topics I find irresistible; here are some paperbacks, new and old, that kept me up late at night and that I think are perfect summer reading. The publication dates are the dates when the paperbacks were released; in many cases, the paperback editions include updated information as well as author interviews and discussion questions.
If you’re interested in polar exploration and the indomitable human spirit:
Like all the best narrative nonfiction books, In the Kingdom of Ice is much more than an enthralling account of historical events. Sides paints a detailed picture of post-Civil War society, when many young men who missed the opportunity to fight in the war were looking for opportunities to become heroes. His engaging, and often very funny, portrayal of newspaper titan James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (backer of the voyage), shows us the increasing role of the press. He covers Native American culture in the Arctic . . . the state of scientific and geographic knowledge in the Victorian era . . . and most of all, the enormous human capacity for courage and endurance.
Like the crew of the Jeannette, the sailors in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (reissue, 2015) were locked in the polar ice pack. You won’t complain about summer heat and humidity when you read about their hellish experiences. The book was originally published in 1959, and the survivors of the expedition to Antarctica all provided first-hand accounts to Lansing. The new edition includes more illustrations and maps, as well as a terrific introduction by Nathaniel Philbrick, who explains how “a young Midwesterner . . . came to write this classic tale of survival and the sea and how, after languishing in relative obscurity, Lansing’s Endurance came to be so enthusiastically embraced by a new generation of readers.”
If you’re fascinated by cannibals and headhunters:
In 1961, the 23-year-old son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller disappeared while traveling through New Guinea on an expedition to find art for his family’s Museum of Primitive Art. While his death was officially ruled a drowning, questions remain — and Carl Hoffman attempts to solve the 50-year-old mystery, delving into an investigation of the violent culture of the Asmat tribe. The New York Times calls the book a “taut thriller”, and it’s an apt description.
Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Daring Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2012)
Lost in Shangri-La, one of the best nonfiction page-turners I’ve ever read, is unusual in that one of the heroic survivors is a woman. A plane is shot down over the cannibal-infested jungles of New Guinea, with only three survivors, all of whom are injured.
If you are a fan of antiquarian maps and books, not to mention true crime:
You rarely encounter a baffling title in narrative nonfiction. The subtitles almost always do a great job summarizing the book, although sometimes — as in this case — they sound a little unwieldy. (I think the reader should decide if the story is gripping, thank you.) The story is gripping, as promised in the subtitle, and interesting from a psychological point of view. What drove E. Forbes Smiley to destroy his career by becoming a thief?
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (2005)
I’ll never get tired of recommending this book. Once again, the subtitle provides almost all the information you need to know before starting the book, but I’ll fill in the blanks by telling you that the “professor” is Dr. James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the “madman” is Dr. William Minor, a Civil War veteran incarcerated in a mental hospital who is the dictionary’s most prolific contributor of definitions. The shocking ending of this book gives new meaning to the phrase “you can’t make this stuff up”.
If you are struggling to understand class and race, especially in relation to higher education:
Robert Peace, a 2002 graduate of Yale and a product of inner-city Newark, was murdered at age 30 in a drug-related shooting. Hobbs, who was Peace’s roommate in college and who remained a close friend after graduation, has written one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Why did Peace, a brilliant young man with a promising career in scientific research, succumb to the drug trade? Hobbs thoroughly and thoughtfully examines Peace’s life in all its complexity and contradictions, with the help of Peace’s family, friends, colleagues, and teachers.
A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League by Ron Suskind (1999)
Pulitzer Prize winner Suskind follows teenager Cedric Jennings as he, with the help of his dedicated and hardworking mother, strives to succeed at a high school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. and later at Brown University.
If you love Shirley Jackson as much as I do:
These gems from the 1950s have recently been reissued in paperback — I suspect because a collection of Jackson’s previously unpublished writings (Let Me Tell You) is being published in August. The humorous essays about family life in Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages are very different from the dark, sinister fiction for which Jackson is known.
What are your favorite nonfiction books?