At its very best, nonfiction is both stylistically beautiful and informative, and can make even the most mundane subjects fascinating. And, frankly, even when it’s imperfectly written it can still be really good. I’ve been thinking about fact that for awhile now, ever since the Times reviewed Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity and said that that it was a “reminder of why subpar nonfiction is so much better than subpar fiction. With nonfiction at least you can learn something.”
Now, I loved Extra Virginity but I’ll concede that it may not have been a stylistic jewel. It didn’t really need to be: It had a coherent story and a good topic, and I definitely learned a great deal about olives, olive oil, industrial malfeasance, marketing, EU trade policy, the Mediterranean diet, antioxidants, and the history of fat consumption in Northern and Southern Europe. Plus, you know, I got a few looks from people on the train reading a book titled Extra Virginity which was good for a laugh.
There are, unfortunately, plenty of nonfiction books that manage to be merely subpar. The style overwhelms the content, or the content is so poorly organized, or the facts the author is trying to convey are so jumbled, that no matter how fascinating the subject might be at the start. I’m not sure what the problem is with Opium Nation but I’m about ready to give up on it. Even though Afghan heroin, terrorism, and child brides should be fundamentally more thrilling than counterfeit olive oil, Opium Nation manages to make it boring. The author is obviously deeply engaged in the subject, framing it with a narrative of returning to her native land after years of exile in the US. But the book winds up as a mishmash of personal details, a rushed political history, and the disappointment of a grown woman returning to her childhood home to find it rendered unrecognizable by a mixture of actual changes and a change in perspective.
More informative, in fact, are a pair of novels I’ve read recently, both of them (as far as I can tell) impeccably researched and beautifully styled. While the individuals in them are of course not historically accurate, they both illuminate moments in history in a way that is difficult to match in strictly factual writing. The first, River of Smoke, Amitav Ghosh’s sequel to Sea of Poppies is what inspired me to pick up the nonfiction book on opium. Megan has already reviewed it here, but I was impressed by how Ghosh studded the novel with an array of places and languages and cultures. That setting bewilders and enchants the characters in the novel, and it draws the reader along with them. If you want to know about the abuse of drugs and the abuse of imperial power, you could do worse than reading this novel, and better than reading a more dry history of, say, US backing of mujaheddin insurgencies in Afghanistan during the 1970s.
Similarly, The Orphan Master’s Son, despite being fiction, opens a window into North Korea’s totalitarian regime, and into questions of identity, love, redemption, survival, and power. Even if North Korea were not at a critical moment right now, I would recommend this book. Given Great Successor Kim Jong-Un’s still-tenuous grasp on the reins of power there, it’s practically mandatory. It’s definitely left me hungry for more. The next items on my list are likely to come from the Times’ North Korea reading list, which includes fiction (The Orphan Master’s Son and some detective novels set in Pyongyang), researched nonfiction (Nothing to Envy) and memoirs of defectors (This Is Paradise!).