The Emotional Ride of Good Nonfiction

One sign of a really good work of fiction is the emotional impact it has on me. The last lines of Isaac Asimov’s Forward the Foundation always moves me to tears. Several scenes in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 have a similar effect on me. There is a scene in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings that had be on the edge of my seat, heart pounding in my chest for more than hour. The ending of W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe just wrecks me every time. I’ve come to expect this from good fiction. Even some of my own stories have this effect on me.

These days, however, I read far more nonfiction than fiction. As a youngster, I had the mistaken idea that nonfiction was dry and boring. Fortunately, by the time I was 12 or 13, making frequent trips to my local branch of the Los Angeles Public library, I learned that good nonfiction, like good fiction, is anything but dry. Indeed, the best of it can elicit the same emotions as a good fiction.

I was thinking about this because I am currently reading Volume I of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. There is an interesting set of emotions it stirs in me. It is a mixture of frustration, awe, admiration, and exhaustion. The frustration comes from what I call “the hindsight of history.” I know how things turns out, and every time I read about a McClellan fumble or a Lee victory, I feel like I want to jump into the story and say, “Don’t you know how this is going to turn out?” This is not the only piece of nonfiction that stirs this particular emotion in me. I remember reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein and feeling frustrated at Einstein’s early setbacks. Don’t you know who this is? I wanted to say.

Awe and admiration come from reading about the bravery of the privates (and occasionally, the officers), especially the volunteers, fighting to protect what they believe in. I’ve felt similar emotions reading Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, and David McCullough’s John Adams and 1776. The exhaustion comes from experiencing battle after battle after battle. I’m reading about these battles 160 years after the fact, and still, they wear me out. I find I have to set the book aside for short intervals to allow me to recuperate, a luxury the soldiers engaged in those battles didn’t have.

Good nonfiction generates other emotions. I remember reading William Manchester’s outstanding 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. This was years ago when I still went into the office regularly, and I’d listen to the audio book as I walked around the block where my office was. The three volumes are massive and cover an incredibly eventful life, but what stand out most was how I was reduced to tears on learning of the death of Marigold Churchill, Winston’s daughter. There I was, on the sidewalk outside a Bed, Bath, and Beyond unable to continue walking. There were too many tears.

Some works of nonfiction fill me with joy. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff was one of these. Some make me laugh out loud, like Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter by Frank Deford. Still others infuriate me like Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, and portions of his Years of Lyndon Johnson biography.

Works of fiction in any medium, when they are well done, move us, but there is always the escape hatch of knowing that these are fictional characters. When nonfiction moves me, that safety net isn’t there. I felt the Churchill’s pain in losing their daughter in part because I knew it was a real loss. To me, the emotional ride of good nonfiction is part of what makes it great.

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