How To

How to Start Reading Nonfiction

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Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

For many people, schooling killed interest in reading, and this can be especially true for nonfiction. Dry and didactic books don’t strike many people as a fun time. Maybe you also needed help getting started with fiction, and that’s fine, too. But I’m glad you’re here, looking to jump into nonfiction. The ember of curiosity is still burning in you, and we’ll nourish a spark into a flame. I, too, used to read fiction exclusively, but some key books in my reading life made me an avid nonfiction reader. Now, I’m roughly 50/50 between fiction and nonfiction, and that’s the way I like it.

If you want to start reading nonfiction, here are a bunch of different angles to try. See what appeals to you. Shrug off what doesn’t. If you’re reading for fun and enlightenment, the point is to find things that will stick with you.

I personally find so much value in reading nonfiction. Sitting with a big idea and looking at it from a lot of different angles is challenging. I like learning about historical events that inform our current lives. I also love stories that prove that truth can be stranger than fiction. So, let’s set you on a path to figure out what nonfiction you like.

Try Nonfiction that Reads Like Fiction

This first bit of advice is fairly standard. If you’re already a fiction reader, you may wish to start with narrative nonfiction. This is to say, nonfiction with a strong storytelling element. This kind of writing is so immersive that you almost forget the story being told is factual. These books are a natural bridge between fiction and nonfiction. As someone who read too many John Grisham books as a kid, John Carreyrou’s book about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos debacle, Bad Blood, hits that legal thriller sweet spot for me.

Book Riot has a number of lists that compile more books like these. We have great narrative nonfiction books. We also have nonfiction books for fiction lovers. And if you want a direct link between a fiction book you liked and what nonfiction has similar vibes, we have some one-to-one matches as well.

Try “Best of” Anthologies

Sometimes, an entire nonfiction book is a daunting task. If you like things in more bite-size chunks, try an anthology. Whether you’re interested in essays generally or you want to drill down on topics like science and nature writing, food writing, travel writing, sports writing, etc., you can find a collection of shorter pieces.

Many such anthologies come out every year, like the Best American series. Given that they aim to find the best of the best writing on a particular subject, you’re sure to find at least a couple of pieces that grab your interest. From there, you can find more to read. You can either seek out more on that topic or more from the author whose style worked for you.

Pursue Your Interests

This point dovetails with the last point, but it can get more specific. Remember when you were a kid and you really loved dinosaurs or horses? Why not catch up with those subjects? Or you’ve probably developed some more interests as you’ve grown. As a kid who loved Edgar Allen Poe at a tender age, I’ve consistently sought out morbid nonfiction as an adult.

Again, the point is to read for yourself and not for anyone else’s approval. If there’s a niche topic or historical event that you’re curious about, there’s probably a book about it. I love to curate nonfiction collections, so if you’re interested in black holes, books about books, books about songs, or scammers and swindlers, it’s your lucky day. 

What nonfiction book matches your interests is also a great question to bring to your local public librarian. Many of them are not only available in person but also by email/chat/text/etc.

Make ‘em Laugh

You really can’t go wrong with a book that makes you laugh. Some of the first nonfiction I came across that really stuck with me were David Sedaris’ books, like Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day. Nowadays, I eagerly await every Samantha Irby collection, like We Are Never Meeting in Real Life and Wow, No Thank You.

Like the anthologies mentioned above, books of humorous essays are great sources of snappy nonfiction. We also have some more recommendations for you, with funny memoirs and funny nonfiction audiobooks.

Look for Familiar Names and Faces

If there’s a public figure whom you admire or who interests you, it’s possible they’ve written a book. Fans of Trevor Noah are consistently delighted by his memoir Born a Crime. Any Lamb will love Mariah Carey’s memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey (hot tip: best read as an audiobook).

It’s also useful to pay attention to names you come across in your non-book media consumption. If you appreciated Ed Yong’s COVID coverage for The Atlantic, for example, you’ll likely appreciate his books, like An Immense World. If you loved Tressie McMillan Cottom’s coverage of #RushTok in The New York Times as much as I did, you’ll appreciate her book Thick. Book Riot’s own Kelly Jensen does amazing work on censorship, but she also writes and edits books! Check out Body Talk.

Try Different Formats

I read physical books, e-books, audiobooks, and graphic novels, and I like nonfiction in all these forms. But you may need to experiment. If a book has a lot of images or footnotes, or if you like to be able to highlight and take notes, a physical book may be best. If you need to prioritize portability or the ability to adjust the text, e-books may work better.

Perhaps you’re already a listener to nonfiction podcasts? Nonfiction audiobooks may work great for you! For example, if you heard the This American Life segment called Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde, you may also appreciate the audiobook of this story more fully fleshed out, The Other Dr. Gilmer.

If you like to read comics, there are plenty of fantastic graphic nonfiction works! These are also great choices if your reading time is limited, as they tend to be faster reads than more text-heavy books.

What Not to Do: Keep Reading After You Lose Interest

I’m a huge proponent of quitting books for basically any reason. If your goal is to find something that really grabs you, honor that. If you set a book down and realize you’ve forgotten everything when you pick it back up, you might as well try something new. Come back to the forgotten book when you have the momentum to read the whole thing.

Making books feel like homework is a choice. If you got burned out on required reading in school, you don’t have to perpetuate this cycle. And if you’ve tried all the above strategies and you still haven’t found a book you like? Maybe you’re simply not a nonfiction reader, and that’s okay, too.

What Not to Do: Read Something You Just Watched an Adaptation Of

Last, this is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. If you’ve just watched a movie/documentary/etc. adapted from a book, give yourself some time away before diving into the book. (This is true for both nonfiction and fiction!) While it may seem like your interest is piqued, the book can feel redundant compared to what you just watched. Then you start skimming, and then you lose interest.

And by you, I mean me. This is what happens to me. So I think it’s better to commit to the book before the screen adaptation because I don’t lose interest as easily in that direction, I’ve discovered. Maybe it’s just me, but I wanted to share this tidbit in case it happens to you, and you haven’t clocked the pattern yet.

The Best of the Best

To sum up, I’ll give one final final piece of advice: get good recommendations! I’ve dropped a plethora here. Talk to trusted bookish friends and librarians. The beginning of the year is the ideal time to work on your TBR because those year-end best-of lists were just dropping left, right, and center.

I have every confidence you’ll find nonfiction that grabs you as strongly as the most gripping novel, and then you, too, will be a nonfiction reader for life.