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The Best Nonfiction Books of All Time and What They Teach Us About the Power of Content

Nonfiction books. No fairy tale wishes, or storybook dreams fulfilled that turn wooden puppets into real-life children. No make-believe characters. The concept of pretending is not allowed, which may make the world of nonfiction seem boring for the people who prefer to read tales that are built on the cornerstones of imagination. However, some of the greatest nonfiction books of all time can teach valuable lessons about content that will help you to see it as you never have before. As the legendary Levar Burton used to say before inviting viewers to ride the rainbow of reading, you don’t have to take our word for it.

Below is an overview of a few of the most popular nonfiction books and the profound lessons you can learn from them:

“The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert made headlines with her scientific account of what she believes is the inevitable catastrophe that the world will soon experience due to mankind. In addition to referring to mankind in general as “neighbors from hell”, Kolbert creatively found a way to write an informative yet engaging book that dissects the adverse effect of mankind’s impact on the health and foreseeable future of the world.

Lesson Learned:

Pull No Punches but Show Respect for the Subject and Audience: At first glance, it may seem as if The Sixth Extinction will disrespectfully place a bullseye on the forehead of mankind – not caring about the feelings that may be harmed along the way. However, Elizabeth was able to beautifully address an “end of the world is near” concept while still showing respect for both the subject and audience (mankind).

You can accomplish the same with your nonfiction content by taking the following steps:

  • No Opinions, Just Facts: It is easy to intertwine your opinions into content based on theories. However, doing so will cross the line that separates fact from fiction. Elizabeth Kolbert backed up each of her points throughout her book with scientific facts, studies and even world history. In addition to showing respect to the readers, presenting facts over opinions earns respect from the readers as well.

 

  • References, References and References: When addressing sensitive subjects, it is best to refer to the quotes and explanations of others besides just your own. Referencing the expertise and expressions of authoritative sources separates conspiracy theories and “wild talk” from resourceful content that engages and informs the audience. Kolbert ends The Sixth Extinction focusing on the largest group of ice species at the Institute for Conservation Research located in California. Instead of allowing her own words to make the final message, Kolbert underlines it with a quote from Paul R. Erhlich – a highly-respected Stanford ecologist.

 

“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion

How do you write a nonfiction account about grief while you are grieving? That question is answered by Joan Didion thanks to the brilliantly written The Year of Magical Thinking. In late 2003, Joan – a longtime reporter of her own inner states – lived through the sudden death of her husband and wrote about it in a way that revolutionized the genre. Beginning with the moment her husband collapsed after suffering a major heart attack at home, Joan breaks down the year of grief and bereavement that unfolded during the aftermath in an unbelievably clear, precise and somehow emotionless way.

Lesson Learned:

Clarity and Precision are Required for Sensitive Content: When you address a nonfiction topic, you must be clear and precise. This can get complicated when focusing on a subject to which you have personal ties. Clarity and precision seem to go through the window when you are personally attached to the subject – a reaction that could quickly transform an informative article into an opinion piece.

You can accomplish the same with your content by doing the following:

  • Detach, But Do Not Disconnect: To distinguish her memoirs from a typical diary, Joan Didion had to detach herself from the experience. Doing so is difficult – especially when addressing such a sensitive topic as loss and bereavement. However, it is not The key is to detach yourself without disconnecting. Your connection to the subject adds authenticity and sincerity to the content. Detaching from it allows you to keep a distance close enough for comfort but far enough to maintain a third-party perspective.

 

  • Shine Light in a Darkened Space: At times, it may seem easier to simply avoid the dark spaces of our thoughts and feelings when creating content. With the fear of scaring readers and viewers off with grim reality, quite a few content creators focus on the “light and frothy” topics instead of taking the risk to dig deep. Just remember that, if done in the right area and at the right time, a deep dig can lead to an oil strike. Shining light on an area that is personally dark for you may give your readers and viewers who are still stuck there themselves the assistance they need to find their way out.

 

“Awakenings” by Oliver Sacks

Robin Williams. Robert De Niro. A 1990 Penny Marshall-directed film nominated for three Academy Awards about a hopeful doctor who discovers the uncanny effects of a drug used on catatonic patients.

Movie fans may quickly recognize the corresponding movie title, Awakenings. However, nonfiction books fan may appreciate that film even more simply because of the 1973 memoir written by Oliver Sacks on which it was based.

Sacks had a beautiful way of breathing life into his memoirs as he wrote detailed accounts that read like artistic journal entries of how he revived several patients that were essentially frozen neurologically. What was referred to as a “sleepy sickness” started in 1916 but persisted through the 1920s and affected close to 5 million people before it mysteriously faded away in 1927. The patients were considered “frozen” because most of the cases involved people whose emotions and thoughts were frozen in time at the point of their lives when they first went to “sleep.” Therefore, when Sacks made it possible for them to “wake up” with a revolutionary drug, it was as if those patients were transported back in time – taking the doctor and the rest of the staff members along for the ride.

Lesson Learned:

  • Storytelling is Not Just for Fiction: Contrary to popular belief, the art of storytelling does not just apply to fiction. It is a creative concept that breathes life into all forms of content – making it more engaging and entertaining for the audience. From a doctor’s perspectives, a detailed account of this historical event could have been a mind-numbing experience for readers. Sachs took a different route as a skilled doctor and passionate writer by blending the art of storytelling with his attention to detail. When creating content – regardless of the topic – you must find a way to make it engaging for readers. The best way to do so is to implement the elements of storytelling into the content – especially if you are writing about a real-life event.

 

  • Don’t Underestimate Your Own Life Experiences: Oliver Sachs basically wrote a detailed memoir from his personal life and professional career that reads like a well-developed story. You may have an experience that occurred in your own personal or professional life that you may strongly believe would be boring to write about and that others would view as “mind-numbing” to even watch in an online video. The takeaway lesson here is that it is not always about the subject of the story, but how the story is told. An action-packed topic could be written like pages of a dictionary or pages of a dictionary could be written as an action-packed story. As the creator of the content, it is up to you to decide.

Annie Ianko

Chief Content Officer

Annie has over 20 years of experience as an editor and content creator and manager. With work in television and written media, she has dedicated her past 10 years to learning the ropes of online content creation, from writing to editing, from SEO to content management.

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