I have a little confession to make. Okay, maybe several related confessions. Or apologies. Depending on how you look at it.

See, several years ago, when I was an English major in college, totally immersed in literature courses and feeling like literature is the highest form of writing imaginable, my dad told me that he was reading only nonfiction at the time.

I felt betrayed! He was the man who owned so many novels that there was never enough shelf space (despite bookcases along an entire wall of the living room). He was the one who pulled Jane Eyre and Bridge of San Luis Rey and Les Miserables down for me when I finally swallowed my pride and asked him which classics I should start with. He was the one who had minored in English in college and taken creative writing classes. How could he possibly ABANDON the entire genre of fiction?

“I just feel like there’s so much I want to learn right now,” he told me, “that I don’t have time for novels.”

And as dumb and immature as it was, I sulked about it. No time for novels? What? I could understand certain qualifications, like no time for trashy novels or frivolous novels or so on, but what about literary novels โ€” the kind that confront you with hard questions, complex scenarios, moral imperatives, renewed empathy for human frailty? How could he be like that?

And why did it bug me so much?

I think I was afraid. I’d looked to him as a role model so for long, aspiring to own and have read as many books as he did, that I worried what his sudden dismissal of them meant for my future. Would I eventually turn my back on literature, too?

Lately, it looks like the answer is yes.

Right now I’m reading (among many other books) Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, and the chapter I’m in talks about what makes us suddenly crave learning:

“Curiosity . . . happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge. . . . Gaps cause pain. When we want to know something but don’t, it’s like having an itch that we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap.”

Until about five months ago, I wasn’t aware that I had such huge gaps in my understanding of the world. But once they were brought to my attention, it’s felt exactly like that pain described. I grab nonfiction books by the handful, and each one presents me with more information that I realize I don’t know, so I turn to more and more of them until the stack on my nightstand looks like a precariously tilting tower.

Here’s a sampling of books I’ve put on hold at the library, bought at used stores, indie stores, on Amazon, and poured through in the last five months. Um, what can I say? You might sense patterns in the topics, because this is where I realized I had huge gaps in my knowledge!

And now that I’ve realized how much I don’t know, I find myself quoting my dad: “I just feel like there’s so much I want to learn right now that I don’t have time for novels.”

Funny enough, Dad’s back into them. He’s even written a fiction manuscript of his own that I keep meaning to read, but this darn itch for nonfiction hasn’t been satisfied yet. There’s still so much I want to figure out . . .

Anybody else been through certain genre binges? Like you suddenly couldn’t get enough comics or romances or young adult vampire books or whatever? What did it feel like?

Leave a comment!


13 thoughts on “A Hypocritical Nonfiction Binge

  1. I do this, too. Sometimes I just need information, other times I need entertainment, or to experience emotions in a safe setting. It kind of like food. If I always ate chocolate cake, I’d grow to hate it, and I’d be malnourished. Just think of it as having a ballanced reading diet. You’re just eating your veggies right now. ๐Ÿ™‚


    1. That makes sense. I’m making up for a life lacking in veggies in more than one way, then! I was allergic to fruits and vegetables growing up (not kidding: they’d make my lips, mouth, and throat swell up), so I’ve just barely conquered that by forcing myself to eat more until the allergy went away. But soon I’ll be able to balance out again, both in reading and eating!


        1. I’ll still get the reaction sometimes with foods I haven’t had for a while, like yesterday with almonds and coconut, but I’ve noticed that “first” time is always the worst. Today I ate more of the same almond coconut stuff and had hardly any reaction. Might not be the same for everybody, though.


        2. My husband has noticed a difference with some fruits/veggies if they are organic. He can have organic carrots and bananas which otherwise would swell up his throat pretty badly. It’s a trial and error thing for everyone I assume.


        3. I bet there’s truth to that for me, too. Maybe that’s another reason I haven’t had reactions as much since I switched to organic produce. The almonds and coconut I ate recently weren’t organic. Thanks for pointing that out! ๐Ÿ™‚


  2. I had a Dr. Seuss phase that lasted like 4 years. ๐Ÿ™‚ I have a lot of Dr. Seuss books to show for it though. I also had a Roald Dahl phase. All of my other phases are defintely nonfiction.


    1. Wow! Four years is a long phase! I can’t remember if I had any that long, except for maybe when I loved religious fiction from age eleven until fourteen or so. Glad you got a great Suess collection from the phase! ๐Ÿ˜€


  3. Your post is quite timely for me. I just went on a NF binge myself over the christmas break reading several by Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, The Tipping point); Sam Harris’ The end of faith and half of his new one, The moral landscape; a great, rare for me, adventure into physics: Entanglement; a couple of chapters in Jared Diamond’s Collapse (been reading parts of this over the past 5 yrs); rereading Stephen King’s A memoir on the craft; and several memoirs (Elna Baker’s long titled Mormon regional stake dance something something, Ned Vizzini’s mostly memoir tale of teen problems and near suicide, reread Girl Interrupted and chunks of Bill Bryon’s A walk in the woods.

    Of course reading memoir probably doesn’t count as part of a NF binge–too much like fiction. Memoir needs a whole other big genre name or we could simply call it fiction though the publishers would never go for that.

    At any rate, it’s refreshing for me to hear another English major admit to NF binges as I’ve been soundly criticized for mine in the past: the transcendence of literature etc.

    Having said that I just decided over the weekend that the NF binge is over. Now for some good old fiction. I think it was rereading The Road by McCarthy for an independent study I’m doing with a student–absolutely beautiful again. Now roaming half.com and bookshelves for fiction. Started another Icelandic detective novel by Indridason…in fact I think I will go read some of it right now.

    Sorry for my response as post but your post hit a chord.


    1. How ironic that we were going through such similar phases. In fact, I even picked up The Road recently as well and just that first page was enough to reawaken my thirst for literature. My husband wanted to read it first, though, so I haven’t quite quit the NF yet. All the Gladwell, etc, sounds marvelous. I’ve really enjoyed the excerpts of those books that I’ve read.

      I do think it’s funny that we criticize nonfiction (as I admitted to with my dad) while those outside our discipline criticize fiction. Obviously both have great merit and also overlap a lot, as you mentioned with memoir. Yet another case where our human tendency toward black-and-white thinking makes us dismiss “the other” too easily.

      Glad you could relate to the post! ๐Ÿ˜€


  4. My binges tend to be self-improvement books. I love reading about how I can be better, focus on goals and improve organization. Right now I’m all about books that encourage one to find their real self and live what they love.


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