Reviewing the Nonfiction Book (as simple as 1-2-3)
The typical nonfiction book is going to deal with either history, or sports, or functions as a survey book. The term survey book refers to one that covers a field in a technical and sometimes textbook-like fashion. In most cases, survey book authors who seek to appeal to a broad audience will keep their language as non-technical as possible, but there are exceptions.
The reader or reviewer encountering a survey book may want to consider at least three questions in judging its success. The first is, “Does this book tell me anything I do not already know?” We may enjoy learning new things, but the typical reader selects a survey book touching on a subject that he/she knows something about (and, in some cases, a lot about).
Let’s say, hypothetically, that all during my life I have been extremely fascinated by the Edsel automobile. I’ve read every newspaper article about the car, every car magazine article I can find, and everything I can find on the web. Now let’s presume that one Joseph Von Schmoewinkle has released a book entitled, The Absolutely, Definitely, Complete Edsel Book. If everything in the book repeats things I’ve read, I am going to be disappointed. Very, very disappointed. This is when a reviewer says – quite fairly – that this book could have been put together by a college student. For such is not writing, it’s compiling.
The second question is, “Are the items covered in the survey book actually related to each other?” The authors of survey books tend to view themselves as Big Picture figures. They want to cover many developments on the subject at hand, past and present, and tell you that they’re all somehow related. Except that sometimes they are not. I refer to this as the “Connections” virus.
Some of you may remember the “Connections” show on public television in which the viewer was told that virtually everything was related (no matter how tenuously) to everything else. In this series, if a kindergartener missed school one day it was somehow connected to Man’s successful landing on the moon.
Yes, it was entertaining. The only problem being that life is not like this… At least not usually.
If you find yourself reading a book that makes such outlandish stretches, you will likely find yourself shaking your head as if to say, “Not likely.”
The third question is, “Did this book make me think about the subject in a new way?” Some people call this the “a-ha” phenomenon. A really good survey book will cause you to re-think how you think about things. When you do, it will seem perfectly logical, but only the very best nonfiction writers are able to get you to that destination.
If you read a very good nonfiction book and you experience just one, two or three “a-ha” moments, you will know that your money has been well spent. The reviewer who experiences those moments before you do will, no doubt, recommend the book without reservation.
This article is the third in a continuing series. Note: The comments about the Edsel survey book in this article do not refer to the actual nonfiction book Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel, which sounds like an interesting read.