We Like Big Books (When They’re Fiction?)

Yesterday Goodreads announced the Best Books of 2011 in the Goodreads Choice Awards, and the winners are nothing if not diverse:

  • The winner for Favorite Book of 2011 was Veronica Roth’s debut young adult novel Divergent.
  • The winner of Best Fiction of 2011 was 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.
  • The winner of Best Nonfiction of 2011 was Alexandra Robbins’ The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth. 

I’ve seen some comments that note Divergent‘s win is a mark of the growing commercial and cultural appeal of YA, which is a good point. You’re probably not going to see Divergent on any major “Best of” list, unless it’s a list specifically devoted to YA titles.

But that’s not what I think is most interesting about the winners. I’m more curious about how very, very different the best fiction and nonfiction titles are and what they say about what we say are our favorite books.

I haven’t read 1Q84, but I do know a few things about it. 1Q84 is big (more than 900 pages), sprawling, and complicated. It’s got twisting narratives and a lot of symbolism to play around with and explore. In fact, 1Q84 is probably the most difficult of all the fiction nominees (at least in my assessment; please, let’s discuss if you think I’m wrong).

If The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth was fiction, it would be almost the exact opposite of 1Q84. Robbins’ book — an exploration of what the intense pressure to be “normal” does to high school students — falls on the lighter end of nonfiction. Her writing is easy to read, and the in-depth reporting that Robbins does is presented in relatively straight-forward story lines. I liked the book quite a bit when I read it earlier this year, but I certainly don’t think it’s the same “type” of book as 1Q84.

Granted, the nonfiction nominees are all relatively mainstream. A lot of the “heavier” hitters can be found stacked in the History & Biography category (won by Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs). Even so, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth beat out some more serious titles —  Boomerang by Michael Lewis, The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins, and The Social Animal by David Brooks, to name a few.

So what’s my point? I think it’s interesting that readers are happy to vote for a sprawling, epic, and complicated read for a fiction, but shy away from the same sort of book when it comes to picking a best work of nonfiction. Have more readers read 1Q84 than some comparably epic work of nonfiction (or did the epics just get stuffed into other nonfiction categories)? A hefty work of fiction is a challenge, but heavy nonfiction is work?

I don’t really know the answer to either of those questions. But what I do like about the Goodreads list is that it offers up some different books to talk about than the pretty similar looking lists coming out from mainstream critics.

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Kim Ukura is a newspaper editor and blogs about literary fiction and non fiction at Sophisticated Dorkiness. Follow her on Twitter: @kimthedork

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