I read a lot of non-fiction. That’s partly because self-help books are included in this category (and I am the queen of self-help), and also because it encompasses so many sub-categories. Sometimes they overlap, but here are some distinctions:
- Biography and autobiography. Some of the dullest books, the ones most difficult to get through, fall into this category. Also some of the liveliest, most exciting books. And it doesn’t simply mean that the subject matter made the difference. It means that good, engaging writing is important, no matter whose story is being told.
- Instruction. Cookbooks usually fall into this category. Also books on writing, gardening, exercise, etc. Then there are the many art instruction books; whether for drawing, painting, paper-making, ceramics or printmaking, I have read plenty of them.
- Self-help. “How to:” raise [polite/well-behaved/well-adjusted/healthy/successful/happy] children; de-clutter; stop procrastinating; be happier; become healthier; be a better employee; be a better friend; manage money; run a small business; be a better conversationalist; diffuse an argument; train a dog. Like I said, I’m the queen of self-help books!
- Inspiration. This is one of those gray areas, but I’ve certainly picked up books that are inspirational first, and the instruction or self-help falls in behind.
- Education. Again, this seems to overlap. Educational books could encompass any other category as well. My distinction is that these books do not even attempt to be entertaining. If you want to simply learn something, these books will tell you what you need to know. That’s it.
- Memoir. The difference between autobiography and memoir is subtle. Mainly, it seems to me, it boils down to artistic license. An autobiography should have names and dates correct. A memoir, which by definition is reliant on memory, can play a little fast and loose with the facts, and the sequence of events. Some of my favorite books fall into this category: Growing Up, by Russell Baker; The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr; The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls; Let’s Don’t Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller; Becoming, by Michelle Obama; What You Have Heard is True, by Carolyn Forsche; and many others.
- Essays. Of course, essays are not always non-fiction, but the ones I enjoy most are. The Essays of E.B. White are some of the best. Essays by Jim Fitzgerald, compiled together in his book, If It Fitz, also have a special spot on the shelf. Essays by Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Evan S. Connell, Annie Dillard, Bill Bryson, and Anna Quindlan are as entertaining to me when read for the tenth time as they were when I first encountered them.
- Reference. Some reference books do double duty as instruction, self-help, education or inspiration books. Depending, I guess, on how likely one is to refer back to it. I’m thinking, though, of reference books being dictionaries, and things like that. Sometimes, in a pinch or for a purpose, fun to read, but mostly just to find a specific bit of information.
Though I love a good mystery, and I relish quality fiction, I’m sure I read more non-fiction than anything else.