I’m grateful to The Washington Post for publishing on Saturday my letter to the editor. My beef was with the paper’s nonfiction book reviews. With novels, the reviewers break down both the story and the writing. But far too often, for nonfiction books The Post recruits an expert in the field, who then critiques the book’s thesis and arguments, without telling me if the book is actually a good read.
This distinction matters to me, as a reader, and as a writer.
In the less than 200 words The Post permitted me, I could only hint at my broader thesis, that I am inclined to read books on topics I wouldn’t normally explore if I know the reading experience will be magical. Last year I read Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve not because I was intrigued by the story–a 15th Century papal official discovering a 1500-year-old poem that had been lost to history–but because it won the National Book Award. As it happened, Greenblatt did an excellent job bringing to life his story through skilled writing, techniques I analyzed in a critical essay I wrote in my MFA program. I also, as it happened, enjoyed learning new insights on the evolution of the Renaissance.
My hope is that other readers are inclined to make the same choices. After I complete the travel memoir I’m writing, I intend to write biographies. My particular obsession is on the role of cartography in the Golden Age of Discovery. I’d like to think that queues will form for blocks for a biography of a 17th Century Dutch father-and-son mapmaking duo. But I suspect I’ll generate a few more sales if I can produce a book that is a pleasurable read even to someone who has never looked at a map that wasn’t on her smartphone screen.
I loved reading The Swerve. But I’ll confess I selected it in part because I felt I could learn from it for my own writing. Had I not been pursuing this MFA–had I not been seeking to learn how to write biographies as true creative nonfiction–would I have read it? I don’t honestly know.
In fiction I am inclined to read authors and genres with which I am familiar. I do at times break out of that pattern, however, usually at the recommendation of a friend and fellow reader whose opinion I trust. How adventurous am I? Perhaps not as much as I should be.
Were I to ask you, “Is good writing important to you in selecting your next book to read?” I would assume you would say “Yes!” So let me ask you a tougher question, or rather two: What genres or subject matter do you find yourself choosing as a reader? And when you do migrate from that comfort zone, what causes you to do so?
I ask as a reader, and as a writer.