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Sunday Salon: Why it is Dangerous to be a Lover of Nonfiction
The Sunday

To be a lover of nonfiction is a dangerous and confusing thing. I have become aware of a major difference in the way readers who primarily love nonfiction shop over the way readers who primarily love fiction shop. When you go to the bookstore and you look for a fiction book, there is generally one place you're searching. Maybe two if you like YA or three if you like romance or western. If you love nonfiction there are an unlimited number of places you might find your books. This can be dangerous and frustrating.

For example, after a recent trip to Half-Price Books I purchased seven books and they were each in a completely different section.

  • The first place I always look is in Essays and Memoirs, which is generally only one or two shelves of a bookcase (in a normal store there might be one whole bookcase). In this section I found Coop, which is a memoir, I suppose, of Michael Perry's life as a farmer and parent.
  • I moved to the Sports section where I found The Lost Art of Walking, a history and discussion of walking.
  • Nearby was travel, where in the further category of Iowa travel I found Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America

    , a profile of a town in Iowa.

  • I went to graphic novels and found the graphic memoir Blankets


  • I caught up with Jason in the Science section where I found The Compassionate Carnivore: Or, How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald's Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat

    on the one shelf of sustainable agriculture books.

  • From sustainable agriculture I moved towards nature writing where I picked up The Control of Nature

    , a book of essays by John McPhee.

  • I ended by trip in the close-by section of Green Living, which had a really neat copy of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

Seven books. Seven sections.

Can you see why loving nonfiction is a dangerous and frustrating process? Dangerous because, as you've just seen, it's very easy to hop around the whole store and find something you're interested in in every section. It's too easy, especially in a store like Half-Price Books, which organizes its categories down into smaller categories.

It's frustrating, however, because if you are looking for a specific book there can be at least three places it will be located. Is it in essays and memoirs? Is it in environmentalism? Is it in cookbooks? I've found Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in every place. Even from the books I purchased you can probably see some overlap. The Compassionate Carnivore, The Control of Nature, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and Coop could have easily been found in the same section, but for some reason Half-Price Books distinguishes them. The distinguishing factor might be something as arbitrary as what type of writer wrote the book. Was it a journalist? A farmer? A scientist?

Part of this is just that the majority of the books in a bookstore are nonfiction, and bookstores do distinguish all the nonfiction by subject because that is how most people look for it. But when you're a general lover of all types of nonfiction it gets frustrating when there isn't just a single section titled Essays that contains all the books of essays. Since nonfiction is a constantly evolving genre (I'm not saying fiction is not, I'm saying literary fiction has a more established, concrete history) it's difficult for a lot of readers to make the distinction between literary nonfiction and what I would consider "How to" nonfiction. How to travel in Mexico. How to become a Buddhist. How to farm sustainably. Versus. My travels in Mexico. My experience as a Buddhist. My experience as a sustainable farmer.

Do you read nonfiction? Do you find yourself running around the store looking for a book? If you are a fiction reader, how many sections do you generally look in?

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Sunday Salon: Why it is Dangerous to be a Lover of Nonfiction + sunday salon