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BAND: Truth in Nonfiction

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BAND, the Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees (and “advocates for nonfiction as a non-chore”…how cool is that??), has recently gotten me to think about why I shy away from nonfiction. I’m quite excited to be hosting this month’s BAND discussion!

I am, primarily, a fiction reader. With fiction, I know what to expect. Events and characters may resemble truth; themes may reflect and apply to reality. But overall, I know that what I am reading is not meant to be fact. It is a work of art — perhaps with a message, or perhaps not — but not something whose validity I feel called to determine.

I like learning new things, so what’s the problem with nonfiction? I believe the answer lies, at least partially, in the question of truth. When faced with a “true” book, I struggle to decide how much to believe and how to figure out whether a particular work of nonfiction can be trusted — basically, how to know how true that book is. Which brings me to the question I’d like to ask this month:

How you determine truth in nonfiction? Is the “true-ness” of a book important to you? If you’re a nonfiction veteran, do you have any pointers to offer nonfiction newbies?

This might sound silly, but I can be a very gullible person. When I read nonfiction, I tend to believe whatever the book says. But I know that every author has an agenda, even the ones who try to follow the facts closely. They all have reasons for exploring the topics they choose, and even the ones trying to be objective will have their own particular slant. I suppose it unsettles me, reading something purportedly true and not knowing how to tell whether it actually is. Agendas in fiction don’t bother me because, well, I know what I’m reading is fiction. I don’t feel like my knowledge of the world is being swayed just because a novelist is up on his or her soapbox.

The one kind of nonfiction I read more frequently is memoir, which, I know, can have varying levels of “truthiness.” As I considered why I gravitate toward memoirs, I realized something: I like them because they’re closest to fiction. I don’t read memoirs expecting everything in them to be true, but rather like novels that may have actually happened. To me they are a way to experience another person’s impressions, worldview, and memories, not a source of universal truth or knowledge.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic, whether you have answers or questions of your own. Other participants’ posts:

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  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I guess I am like you, and I assume that if a book is nonfiction that all the facts contained in it are true. I have come to realize that this might be a case of wishful thinking, especially after reading the expose on Three Cups of Tea, but generally, I do just go with the flow and consider the nonfiction that I read to be true.

    This was a great post today, and I really enjoyed seeing how you answered this question!

  • http://alternatereadality.blogspot.com/ Jenny

    I’d never thought about this before. I don’t like reading nonfiction unless I’m interested in the subject but I’d never thought about whether what they’re writing is true; I always just assume it is. Now I’ll think about this every time I pick up a nonfiction book.

  • http://semifictional.wordpress.com/ Sarah

    This is an interesting post and question. I suppose reading reviews/quotes on the cover can help me decide whether a non-fiction book is trustworthy but I agree that the book would still have an agenda. Actually I don’t read much non-fiction (apart from memoirs, like you) but I think it’s just because I find it more difficult to read. One of the things I want to do in 2012 is read more non-fiction.

  • http://wormhole.carnelianvalley.com Charlie (The Worm Hole)

    “I struggle to decide how much to believe and how to figure out whether a particular work of nonfiction can be trusted — basically, how to know how true that book is.” As a history student, I spend my whole time doing that when reading non-fiction. A hard habit to break out of, but then it’s not a bad thing. I think you go with your gut, you compare it to the rest of what’s been written, how it’s written, and if you’re in doubt do some research afterwards. It makes you feel a bit like a detective!

    I read non-fiction to learn more (or to start to learn) about subjects I’m interested in and to know what other’s opinions are. So mostly that’s historical subjects, but I read memoirs and science books too.

  • http://www.fizzythoughts.com softdrink

    Excellent question! I always want to believe an author, too, but I also think that the more they gush about their subject (especially in biographies) the less I should accept what they’re saying 100%.

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  • http://ardentreader.wordpress.com Christina

    I asked a similar question in my Sunday Salon earlier this week: If you admit that nonfiction can be skewed or biased, do you have to read the other side of the argument or another presentation to make sure you are getting the whole picture?

  • http://readhanded.blogspot.com Julie @ Read Handed

    I loved writing about this topic. Maybe it’s my librarianess. The main point I tried to make in my post is that reading one book on a subject does not constitute true knowledge of that topic. For true knowledge, you have to read lots of books and other information on a topic and synthesize it all together. That may be too much work for the casual nonfiction reader, but it’s the way to go if you want the “truth.”

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  • http://sophisticateddorkiness.com Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

    This was a great discussion topic, thanks for hosting Erin! I put my link up today :)

  • http://bkclubcare.wordpress.com Care

    Yes, I don’t get hung up on the truthiness in nonfic. I don’t tend to read nonfiction to learn EVERYTHING but to just get a taste of a subject. If I find a book to be fascinating and then find out later that it was false, I probably would shrug it off as no biggie. I can’t think of any examples of this, though.

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