Essays

The Bane Of My Bookish Existence: I Can’t Read Nonfiction In Print

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It is perhaps an irony that I am writing this post just days after having finished a nonfiction book in print, but do not feel betrayed: it is exactly the (nonfiction book) exception that proves the rule.

I know that a lot of people don’t like reading nonfiction, and I understand that preference; so many of us read for entertainment alone, to have a little time for ourselves, to forget the troubles of the world we live in, and I am certainly, first and foremost, a fiction aficionado. Fiction is what makes me love and engage with books so much, with their relatable fictional characters, and stories that grip us and touch us deeply. But I absolutely need nonfiction to learn about many of the social issues I am interested in.

Fiction can be a great tool to learn about history, and about social justice. But when you want to do a good job at educating yourself — and others — you need the concrete knowledge that fiction often lacks. You need data and numbers and accurate info. Since I love books, nonfiction books are my preferred method of getting that sort of information.

And here is where the bane of my existence comes into play: I cannot, for the life of me, read nonfiction in print.

I first noticed this issue quite a few years ago, when I stumbled upon a memoir by a personality I was really interested in getting to know better. Months after starting the memoir, though, I realised I had put it aside one day and had never picked it back up.

This happened with other similar — and rather interesting — books: other memoirs, psychology, philosophy, you name it. I would start the book in print, find it fascinating, and then notice months later that I had abandoned the book at some point and forgotten all about it.

Every single time this happened, it was because I had ended up prioritising fiction. So, for a long time, I didn’t read any nonfiction at all. This is, until I discovered audiobooks.

Now, audiobooks have been a whole journey in my life as a reader. I will not go into detail about my love for them, since you can have a quick look at all the things I’ve written for Book Riot and you’ll see them popping up often, but when it comes to nonfiction, audiobooks became my saviour.

Since I already read so much fiction in print, I started giving preference to nonfiction when purchasing audiobooks. And it worked: I would put on my headphones, go do something — work, chores, cycle — and finally be able to learn fascinating things about the world. My love of nonfiction grew with my love for audiobooks, and to this day, they very much go hand in hand (even though I currently also listen to more fiction than nonfiction, oops sorry not sorry).

I bet you’re thinking: but, Carina, if you manage to read nonfiction in audio, what’s the problem anyway? Well, as much as I am glad I have the means to consume nonfiction, I am aware that my experience with nonfiction in audio doesn’t always translate in the same way print would.

What I Miss By Reading Nonfiction in Audio

More Time To Think

I lack the patience to listen to audiobooks at 1x speed. After having spent some time training myself to listen to them, I now have no trouble focusing. That is, unless the audio is so slow that my mind ends up racing and focusing on something else.

I need the narration to keep me on my toes, so I speed it up, usually up to 1.5x. (I can almost see people who listen to audiobooks at 2.5x reading this article and thinking: wow my brain must be FAST! It must, because I can’t go over 1.7x, and that is only on very rare occasions, so kudos to you!)

While this speed is adapted to my listening needs, it is not a speed that allows me much time to think about what I am reading. I’m usually on the go — on my bike, going to work — so there is hardly any time to stop and consider what I am listening to on the spot, or to take notes.

This is something I usually do later, looking back at what I’ve learned. This also means I forget more.

Underlining

Yes, I know most audiobook apps give you the option of adding a tag when you want to save your spot on a certain part of the book, but if you read above, I usually listen to audiobooks as I cycle.

On the few occasions I do tag audiobooks, do I ever go back to listen to what I’ve tagged? No, because checking those tags in an app isn’t as organic as leafing through a print book. So yes, I do tag quotes, but they usually stay tagged and untouched afterward.

Leafing Back and Rereading

Often, when I start a new audiobook, I listen to the first half-hour and then start it over again. This helps me get into the story, figure out the narrative a bit, and get used to the narrator’s voice and pace.

Then, as the story proceeds and as I get more at home with the audio, it becomes pretty much a journey forward.

I will sometimes rewind the audiobook, if I find myself losing focus and missing something, but doing this isn’t as easy as turning pages on a book, and let’s not even get into the troubles of finding a scene that you listened to days before.

Any time I consider finding a specific passage, or sentence, I know it’s pretty much a lost battle. Which is a shame, since with nonfiction you really gain a lot from flipping through the pages and rereading passages again.

Especially because I also read nonfiction in audio for book clubs, it would be great to be able to actually do a proper job at going over what I’ve listened to without having to do a second listen, or keep forwarding and rewinding to find a specific place in the book.

Unfortunately, this is a struggle I still haven’t managed to overcome, and it’s something I’ve learned to accept.

The Exceptions To the Rule

Above, I did point out that I had managed to finish a nonfiction book in print a few days ago, so of course there are exceptions. Looking back at that exceptional list, you’ll find books like In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, Demystifying Disability by Emily Ladau, and Welkom Bij De Club by Thomas van der Meer (a memoir about the Dutch author, and his transition).

Below are the reasons why these books have worked for me in print, and what you should look for if you share similar troubles with me, but would still like to pick nonfiction in print once in a while.

They Read Like Fiction

Tricky, isn’t it? Being able to read a nonfiction book because it reads like fiction? But it is the truth. Some of these books have a very peculiar way to tell a true story, and they are easier to engage with because of that.

They’re Short

These books aren’t long. In fact, they took me less than a week to finish. Even Demystifying Disability, which reads very much like most nonfiction, took me two days to read cover to cover.

I suppose that, for longer books, spreading out the reading can help manage this, since you get to take breaks and then go back into it bit by bit. Just don’t forget to go back into them.

They Contain Accessible Language

The more complex the language, the easier I will give up on a book.

Especially for texts which cover already complex themes, I need a book to simplify them for me so that I can spend more time reflecting on what I’ve learned, rather than constantly trying to figure out what is being told to me.

Simpler language will help you go through the book without much effort, and you’ll have a better chance to stick to the book to the end.

The Siren Call of Fiction

In summary, I fear that what is really holding me back from reading nonfiction in print is fiction. Realising this is getting to the core of my troubles. Fiction books are some sort of siren’s call, pulling me away from the necessary work nonfiction books so often require of me.

If this is your main problem too, I’m afraid I have no concrete solutions to offer you except, perhaps, to let you know that you are not alone.

Because yes, reading nonfiction in print is the bane of my existence. But fiction is — for better or worst — the object of all my desires.

I hope that if, like me, you still wish to pursue the reading of nonfiction, you may find a solution that works for you by using other mediums, such as audiobooks, or some of the tricks I’ve shared above.


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