The Shelf Life of Nonfiction

I buy books faster than I can read them, and some books go stale before I get around to consuming them.  Fiction is often timeless, but for nonfiction, most books have a shelf life.  A ten to twenty year old science book is usually not worth reading.  Books about politics and economics go bad even quicker.  And books about current events and pop culture have practically no shelf life at all.

Yesterday I started reading Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas From the Computer Age by Paul Graham, published in 2004.  When this book came out, the back of the dust cover had seven high praising blurbs, but I think time has tarnished the luster of its big ideas.  I’m not singling out Paul Graham for criticism, but using his book as an example of what time does to nonfiction, and to compare it to how fiction holds up better over time.


For example Graham writes about nerds and geeks and speculates on the nature of popularity and how it appears that being smart is a good thing before and after high school, but not during.  Eight years later, this essay seems dated because the topic has been well covered since.  However, when I think of great stories about nerds and geeks, I think of King Dork, a 2006 book by Frank Portman, Sixteen Candles, a John Hughes film from 1984, and Freaks and Geeks, a TV show from the 1999-2000 season.  Graham’s nonfiction essay has few reporting details, other than some vague personal memories.  Graham was abstractly talking about the reputation of being smart among high school students, and if you were clued into his message it might have felt insightful in 2004.  It doesn’t in 2013.

Most of the essays are still somewhat appealing, but were probably much fresher as blog or magazine pieces at the time.  You can read them here, and in particular, “Why Nerds are Unpopular.”  I think the fictional accounts I mention above clearly show why nerds are unpopular, and these art forms have lasting power.  Now, this isn’t meant to criticize Graham’s essays.  I write the same kind of essays myself for this blog, and I often wonder if my ideas wouldn’t be better presented as fiction.  Social commentary often works better shown not told.

I wonder if 1981’s The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder would hold up to rereading today?  It won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize in 1982.  Tracy used an abundance of actual details, and reported on the lives of engineers designing the Data General Eclipse MV/8000 minicomputer.  No one cares about that minicomputer today.  I found the book riveting at the time, but would I now?  Readers today might care about the history of the subculture that built it, but it would be an esoteric read.  I need to get a copy of The Soul of a New Machine and reread it to see how well it holds up 30+ years later.   Few people will ever read The Soul of a New Machine today, but many will keep watching movies like The Social Network (2010) long into the future.

Sure, some nonfiction books do have lasting power.  People still read On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin from 1859 and Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau from 1854.  Would more people understand these books if they were made into movies?

When I pulled Hackers & Painters off the shelf to read last week, I also pulled Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul (2007) by Edward Humes, Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir (1999) by Jerry M. Linenger, and Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931) by Edmund Wilson.  The Wilson book is the most famous, but only known to literary theory historians probably.

These books are all worth reading, but do they really hold up?  Off the Planet offers the gritty details of being an astronaut and is far more realistic than any science fiction book.  And think about that.  Few people read about real space travel, and millions embrace highly unbelievable space opera in books, comics and movies.  For the most part people just prefer fiction to fact.

Monkey Girl is a serious book.  It’s an important book.  It’s about the teaching of evolution in schools and the legal actions against it.  A subject always in the news.  Monkey Girl is brilliant reporting on reality, with thousands of details and ideas to chew on.  I think that’s a clue to the success of nonfiction lasting.  Nonfiction must report details, not speculation.  A book like Eden’s Outcast, John Matteson’s 2007 biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott is timeless – until another biographer puts in more work that overshadows it.

I’m slowly moving from being a fiction bookworm to a nonfiction bookworm.  We’ve always cherished and judged great novels as art, but I think we need to apply the same attention to nonfiction.  Most nonfiction published is no more lasting than a newspaper, but some nonfiction books do have a long shelf life and we need to consider them as art too.

Yet, why does fiction have so much more lasting power than nonfiction?  I’m reading South Wind by Paul Douglas, a fictionalize account of British expats living on the island of Capri published in 1971.  Would a nonfiction travel book written at the time be more informative?  Before that I read Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick, a fictionalize account of 1959 life in Marin County, California.  I found it totally compelling.

What does fiction have that nonfiction doesn’t to make it enduring?  How is it we often find fiction more educational about the past than nonfiction books?

Writing nonfiction that’s powerful and lasting, should contain an abundance of facts that our collective soul won’t want to forget.  Either from research or reporting, nonfiction that’s as powerful as fiction must contain an overwhelming collection of vivid details about life in another time.  Strangely enough, it’s the accumulation of significant creative details that make fiction powerful.  Fiction can be lies that last for centuries.  Few nonfiction books last very long.  They are always superseded by books with better facts, but some nonfiction books do last.  We need to identify and think about them.

Here is Modern Library’s 100 Best Nonfiction Books.  There are many wonderful books on this list, but most of them just don’t convey the concept of classics to me.  I’ve only read nine of them, and read parts of a few others.  I often reread great fictional novels, but rarely reread a nonfiction book.  Why?

That’s another kind of shelf life.  I keep my favorite novels, but I give away the nonfiction I admire.

JWH – 1/22/13

3 thoughts on “The Shelf Life of Nonfiction”

  1. “The Things They Carried,” “A Walk in the Woods,” “Last Chance to See,” “A Gentle Madness,” and “In Cold Blood” are the ones that come to mind. I’m not a big Non-Fiction fan though.

    1. It’s very ephemeral. Out of over 600 essays only a handful have had any kind of lasting power, and even those fade with time. My current success is about MyFitnessPal, an app to track calories. It’s been getting 50-100 hits a day. But as new year’s resolutions are forgotten I expect it to be forgotten too.

      Also blog writing is very hit or miss. Most of my posts are misses right from the start. A few get daily attention from Google for awhile and then they fade. A few, and I mean a very few, start getting hits months after they are written. Have a bit of life and then die.

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