By Mark Alpert
My reading habits are completely out of whack. On average, I read at least twenty novels for every one nonfiction book. This extreme asymmetry isn’t strictly a result of my career choice; although I’m a novelist and I get a lot of inspiration from reading other authors’ fiction, that’s not the reason why I plow through so many novels. I just can’t help it. I read the stuff because I love it.
And here’s what makes the imbalance even more severe: I read so much fiction that it makes me intolerant of nonfiction that’s poorly done. A book about politics or sociology or science or art might have persuasive, important arguments, but I’ll quickly lose patience with it if the author doesn’t tell an interesting story, or if his or her voice isn’t lively and compelling.
I won’t waste your time complaining about nonfiction books I hated. Instead, I’ll talk about the ones that cleared my ridiculously high bar. One of my favorite history books, for example, is Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. This monster has nearly 3,000 pages in all (1.2 million words!) but it’s riveting. The opening of the book is brilliant: instead of torturing readers with a deadly dull recitation of all the causes of the war, it starts with the tale of how in 1835 a 27-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant named Jefferson Davis (the future president of the Confederacy) fell in love with the daughter of Zachary Taylor, his commanding officer (and future U.S. president). Davis asked for Taylor’s permission to marry his daughter Sarah, but Taylor refused, so Davis resigned his commission, eloped with Sarah, and fled with her to his family’s plantation in Mississippi, where a few months later she died of either malaria or yellow fever. Ten years later, Davis was elected to the U.S. Congress, but he rejoined the army when the Mexican-American War broke out. He held the rank of colonel now, and his commanding officer, once again, was Zachary Taylor.
Awkward, right? But Davis distinguished himself so well at the Battle of Buena Vista that Taylor actually apologized to him: “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”
This opening chapter hooked me. After reading it, I was ready to go wherever Shelby Foote wanted to take me, sloshing through the blood and gore of Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg. Foote was a novelist too, so I guess it should’ve been no surprise that he could tell the story of the Civil War so well.
Another novelist who wrote excellent nonfiction was David Foster Wallace. As it turns out, the author of the literary bestseller Infinite Jest also wrote Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Books about math are usually not known for their wit and verve, but Wallace somehow managed to stir my interest in Georg Cantor, the founder of set theory and the “infinity of infinities.” Until reading this book, I never really understood how one kind of infinity (say, the set of all real numbers) could be larger than another kind of infinity (say, the set of rational numbers). But Wallace presented the mathematical proof in a way that nearly anyone could understand.
Right now I’m reading a nonfiction book about another difficult subject, the current state of theoretical research in fundamental physics (string theory, supersymmetry, all that good stuff). Titled Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, it was written by a physicist named Sabine Hossenfelder who became well-known in the physics community because of her popular blog that questioned some of the conventional wisdom in the field. Unlike most people who write science books — usually naïve journalists who are way too wide-eyed about the latest theories, or pretentious Nobel Prize winners who love to pontificate — Hossenfelder has a wry, skeptical voice, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes pissed off. Here, for instance, is her summary of one of the book’s chapters: “In which I meet with Nima Arkani-Hamed and do my best to accept that nature isn’t natural, everything we learn is awesome, and that nobody gives a fuck what I think.”
Another thing I like about this book: it’s only 236 pages long. Hey, I love physics as much as the next guy, but I have a big stack of unread novels on my desk!
Here’s a novel about science that definitely won’t bore you: THE COMING STORM