Why & How to Read Nonfiction Books

You know, the books that make us feel like we’re smart…

I knew this guy who once told me, on the very first day we met, that I should hang out with him because he was [supposedly] one of the smartest guys I’d ever known.

Umm, so, leaving aside the facts that we had just met that day and that he had no way of knowing of my associations, and that it’s counterintuitive to not-too-subtly insult someone if you’re trying to get a date… his reasons for the aforementioned comment was based on the fact that I love reading literary fictions, most of which are written by authors he’d never heard of.

I’m not sure what that says about him, but moving on…

He also, on that very same day, laughed at me for saying that I loved Nabokov’s Lolita, because, according to him, “it’s so sexual”… go figure…

Now, leaving this numbskull aside, there are some real perks to reading non-fiction. Because of that, even though I enjoy works of fiction a lot more as far as recreational reading goes, I try to maintain a healthy balance when it comes to my reading habits. For every few works of fiction, I try to read at least one book of nonfiction.

Someday, I’d love to write about “Why You Should Read Fiction” for all the nonfiction snobs out there, but today I’ve decided to try and help those who struggle with reading nonfiction. So, here we go:

Why You Might Want to Read Non-Fiction

For a Deeper Understanding of Things That are of Interest to You

As much as I hate to admit it, [some types of] nonfiction books do help us learn crucial information that we can only learn by reading nonfiction. Like history, or technical stuff.

Not that we can’t know some of these from works of fiction, but fictional stories have to dedicate a lot of resources to plot and character developments, thus, they’re limited to how much hard facts they can share, and often only focus on the parts that are necessary for the said plot and character developments.

For example, if you want to learn about the specifics of a subject, such as quantum physics, you better read a book on quantum physics and not Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. Similarly, Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan may give you a peek at the Palestine-Israel conflict, but you can only understand the specifics and the history of that region by reading something like Fateful Triangle by Noam Chomsky.

To Learn from Those Who Came Before Us

Biographies are awesome! They give so much insight into those we love, respect and look up to. many a biography has changed the way I look at the world. Believe it or not, often I’m left appreciating how much crazier real life is than, say, fiction! Biographies can teach us crucial things about ourselves, the times we live in, and all kinds of other things.

Reading the biographies of famous people is one thing. But I remember reading a biography of Dr. Perry Baird, a man of little significance and be haunted by the man’s experiences in a mental asylum in the mid-twentieth century. The man was fascinated by manic depression and may have found the root cause of this illness, but before he could do anything about his research and findings, he fell victim to this illness himself.

No horror book or movie had the kind of effects on me that this book did. Sometimes you read a biography hoping to learn about a man, but you come out the other way learning so much more than that! You learn about history, you learn about times and you learn about why we are where we are.

These are crucial for our growth as human beings and understanding the world we live in.

Nonfictions Sharpen Our Brains

One of the appeals of works of fiction to me is the idea of escapism. Sometimes I read because I want to forget the real world and lose myself in a make-believe world instead. I can also live out my craziest fantasies in fictions, through fictional characters.

This isn’t all that bad. In fact, I’d argue that this is precisely why all of us should be reading works of fiction every now and then. They give us a much-deserved respite from the worries of real life.

But you can get that from other sources too. Such as video games, or Magic the Gathering, or… I don’t know… Tennis!

And sure, some of these likely contribute to our overall brain-health in one way or another, but knowledge is a whole different ball-game. New information scratches out cerebrum very differently. I’m no neurologist, but man, I think I can almost feel my brain being scratched when I’m reading about some super confuscating topic, like… relativity, for example.

The thing is, our brain is essentially a very important muscle. And like all other muscles, it also needs to be flexed from time to time, or it becomes dull and flabby. (If you’re a neurologist reading this, my sincerest apologies.)

The more you read things that make your brain work, the easier it will be for you to grapple with complex matters of the world.

It is Crucial for Writers That They Read Nonfiction

Even if you write fiction, you need to train yourself to read nonfiction. Most books, including fictions, do not live in a vacuum. Even some of the most fantastical books are somehow rooted in something from real life. Otherwise, none of us would be able to relate, and if we can’t relate, we can’t appreciate.

That’s why writers of all kinds of genres should be reading all kinds of books. Fiction writers should read nonfiction, and nonfiction writers would benefit from reading fiction too.

How to Train Yourself to Read More Nonfiction

Pick a Topic You’re Somewhat Familiar With

I have a background in engineering, so naturally, I find scientific topics a little easier to read. For example, it is much easier to convince me to read a book on quantum physics, than, say, a history of world economics.

Pick a Topic You’re Genuinely Interested In

Aside from familiarity, a genuine thirst for a particular topic may also be the catalyst you need to start reading a nonfiction book. I’m really into middle-eastern conflict these days, so I’ve been trying to read up on that. It’s been difficult at times, but at least now I know more than I used to.

On the other hand, I’ve been struggling to finish This is Marketing by Seth Godin for the last month and a half. I’ve only managed to read up to page 24… but I just can’t seem to get myself to page 25…

And I actually LIKE Seth Godin!!!

The reason is obvious. I’m just not that into learning about marketing…

Read a Biography

Biographies are great. Reading biographies feels like reading fiction! There are characters and character developments, there are plots and even some plot twists.

But they’re NOT fiction. And therein lies the beauty of reading biographies. You get the thrill of reading fiction, without the fiction. And you learn a ton from reading them too! You learn not only about a certain person, but you also learn about the times that they lived in, the people of that time, the politics of that time.

Nothing else gives you as much perspective as reading biographies. Even if you cannot bring yourself to read any other kind of nonfiction books, at least give biographies a go. I’m sure you’ll find a few you’ll appreciate. And because of their story-like nature, you’ll find that they’re the perfect nonfiction genre for beginners.

Read a Little at a Time

If you’re struggling, try reading a little at a time. Read a page a day, that shouldn’t be too painful. Feel free to read in alternate days. But read consistently. Consistency is important if you want your brain to get used to reading difficult things (or boring things… because honestly, most nonfiction books are rather boring).

Don’t take too many days off between reading each page. In fact, the idea is to start slowly and then build up for more as your brain starts to get used to taking in complex matters.

Right Before Bed is a Good Time to Read Nonfiction

Books (those you do not want to read) have a magical ability to make you want to sleep.

Take advantage of that.

If you’ve been struggling to get off your phone right until bedtime, and then squinting to get a few more updates in as you slide underneath the comforter, here’s your chance to kick that habit for good.

Start taking your nonfiction dose (it only works if you’re reading an actual book… like a paperback or a hardcover, and not a tablet or Kindle) right before you go to bed. Or right after jumping on the bed, but before turning out the lights. Allow the book to make you nice and sleepy. You’ll get your nonfiction fix AND you’ll be over your phone addiction.

Kill two birds in one stone, eh?

I hope this gives you some motivation to start reading nonfiction or start reading more nonfiction than you’re used to. Good luck!

I’m an engineer, writer, and amateur photographer. I write about what I know and what I’m trying to make sense of.

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