Today is National Nonfiction Day!
In the U.K. Actually, it’s former National Nonfiction Day, since the day—meant to encourage children to read nonfiction—has since been expanded into an entire month.
We have no such thing here in the United States (although it is National Novel Writing Month). But should we? We asked a few of our favorite nonfiction writers and scholars to tell us what inherent value they see in reading non-fiction—and in setting a day aside to encourage America’s kids (and adults) to do the same.
W. Ralph Eubanks, author of Ever Is a Long Time and House at the End of the Road
All writers write because they want to have an impact on society and to affect someone’s life other than their own. But the deeper motivation behind the work of writers of nonfiction—particularly in the genre known as creative nonfiction—remains misunderstood given the broad parameters of the genre. What compels a writer to pen a memoir, and how can one’s personal history serve as a means for exploring a broader issue, such as race or civil rights? What pushes someone to spend years documenting the impact of a historic event on a group of people, as Isabel Wilkerson did so masterfully in The Warmth of Other Suns? And how can facts be woven into a story that reads like a novel, yet have the narrative remain grounded in truth? Outside of the academy, there are few opportunities for creative nonfiction writers to discuss the mechanics behind their craft. And in the risk-averse world that publishing is today, readers are seeing less variety in the creative nonfiction firmament. Perhaps a day or week devoted to nonfiction would make readers—as well as publishers and editors—pay closer attention to the variety of works being created by writers and that readers want to read.
Alexis Okeowow, New Yorker staff writer and New America fellow
As a lover of fiction since early childhood, my affection for nonfiction came relatively late. What I liked most about fiction was how you could disappear into another life as soon as you opened a book; I didn’t yet realize that with the best nonfiction you could immerse yourself in lives that belonged to real people, and that those stories could, incredibly, read like fiction. Some of my favorite books, about a Sudanese refugee making his way to the United States, or about ordinary North Koreans, are so beautifully written and elegantly told that I can forget the events actually happened—but then I remember that they did, and I feel privileged to have a window into people and places, near and far, of which I would otherwise know very little. We should read nonfiction because it’s possible to be both captivated and educated by books, and it’s essential to court the unfamiliar, to complicate our understanding of the world and to increase our capacity for empathy. A month for nonfiction is not nearly enough, but it’s a start.
Dinah Lenney, creative nonfiction editor, Los Angeles Review of Books
The great thing about kids (and the rest of us) reading nonfiction—not just history and biography and science (each of which deserves its own day, week, month, season), but first-person narrative, memoir, and personal essay—is that they might be sparked to consider the idea of joining the larger conversation themselves.
Because if ever a genre gave readers permission to value their own expression, nonfiction is it, right? “What do I know?” asked Montaigne. And, “I write to find out what I think,” said Joan Didion. And, “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company. It is beyond me,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston. So: Maybe, hopefully, a kid comes away from nonfiction—from one of those essays (or any number of others)—inspired to discover or prove the same. Kids (and the rest of us) should live as though their stories matter, and writing is a conduit to that kind of living. Not only that—if kids read nonfiction (alongside their fiction) they’re as likely to want to grow up to be writers as (or as well as) kings, or wizards, or spies, or anything fictional; nonfiction might inspire them to want to be more attentive, to think more deeply, to seek meaning and value and purpose and connection in the work of making sentences.
Look, kids should read everything (did I say that already?)—we all should. But if nonfiction especially sparks any one of us to entertain the idea that this business of living is worth more thought, if it encourages us to take ownership and authorship of our experience, to be present and accounted for, to do better by each other and ourselves, then by all means, kids (and the rest of us) should read nonfiction. Kids should read stories, essays, poems, history, science, and drama, with the understanding that somebody real crafted those beautiful sentences—and that they can craft beautiful sentences, too.
Robert S. Boynton, director of the Literary Reportage Program at NYU and author of the forthcoming book, The Invitation Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project
The best nonfiction transports its readers, freeing them from grasp of the non-stop newsfeed that passes for reality. It takes its bearings from the world of facts, but renders them in a way that is sensible and even beautiful. In that respect, the difference between the best works of fiction and nonfiction is one of degree, not kind. Both set the reader back on himself, creating a space in which he can reflect on the gap between the real and the ideal. "I believe that if you go deep enough into characters they become so real that their stories feel like make-believe. They feel like fiction," the writer Gay Talese once told me. The notion that the truly real carries the kind of emotional response one more commonly associates with fiction story is a paradoxical truth we have all experienced at one time. "I want to evoke the fictional current that flows beneath the stream of reality," Talese concluded. That sentiment deserves to be celebrated.
Chris Leonard, author of The Meat Racket and New America Fellow
As a journalist, I am deeply biased when it comes to reading nonfiction—I think that everybody should spend at least some small part of every day reading it. That’s because events in the real world matter, and the best way to learn about those events is to read. Without reading nonfiction, people can become imprisoned within the territory of their daily circumstances, unaware of the world around them.
But even if every day is partially given over to reading nonfiction, it makes sense to set aside one special holiday to recognize the importance of nonfiction writing. Creating a Nonfiction Day would help draw attention to writing and authors that people might night never hear of otherwise. It would help readers realize that nonfiction writing isn’t just confined to the pages of newspapers, magazines and the history books. The best nonfiction writing stands with the best fictional literature as an art form that can both inform and inspire.
Authors like Joan Didion or Robert Caro stand among the best in the canon, and reading their work can help people see and understand their world in a new and deeper way. Authors like these go far beyond the simple recitation of what happened. They use their books to dive into the question of why the world works as it does. It’s not just fun to read books like that, but it’s indispensable to being a good citizen. It seems like we should use many more than one day a year to celebrate that.