Narrative Nonfiction: 3 Amazing Books

Great narrative nonfiction sweeps a reader into a world, a time, a life or a place. The subject can be exotic or prosaic, it almost doesn’t matter – it’s the “Four ‘I’s that define such writing and compel you to read on: immersion, immediacy, insight and "inside-ness."

Hear the cartilage cracking in the back of an aging athlete stretched out on the ground before a hushed crowd, as player and spectators try to coax one more flash of brilliance out of a stiff and weary body. Feel the mixture of exultation and horror as brilliant, driven minds give birth at once to the most creative and destructive of modern inventions, the computer and the H-Bomb. Rail at the senseless loss of a child’s life in a country so foreign and different that it had always eluded your imagination and interest – until a certain book, a certain intimate, passionate narrative, sucked you into a world and changed your mind and heart.

That’s why I love the powerful genre of narrative nonfiction. Or call it literary journalism or the nonfiction novel. Pick your label, narrative nonfiction is a small, poorly defined, but inspiring bookshelf where artistic and literal truth take a walk together through great storytelling. It’s what I aspire to write and what I read with pleasure, and here are three very different examples I recommend.

Open: An Autobiography
Andre Agassi is officially the author of this brutally honest story of a life in professional tennis, but the writer was actually Pulitzer-winner J.R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar and (in September 2012) Sutton, who kept his name off Agassi's book because, as he puts it, the midwife doesn't go home with the baby. But he does deliver a story that grabbed me from the first lines, in which Agassi awakens on his hotel room floor in agony, unable to move, contemplating the last U.S. Open in a storied career. We learn he despises the game of tennis, and has done so from the moment his crazed father constructed a bazooka-like ball machine and aimed it like a weapon at his seven-year-old son. Yet Agassi lies there wishing that the end was not upon him. Open is a textbook on how to do narrative nonfiction right.

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
Who knew that my Mac Mini was a direct descendant of America's project to beat the Soviets to the hydrogen bomb? And who better to tell the story of the birth of the digital era, of computers that were conceived because we needed to calculate terrible explosions and end-of-the-world trajectories, than George Dyson? He grew up with the Princeton University scientists who made it happen, and with a physicist father who pointed to an old fan belt on the ground and explained to his three-years-old that it was "a piece of the sun." And that made perfect sense to the boy, for this is how Dyson's mind works, and why he could write such a compellingly unsettling mix of historical nonfiction, science narrative and visionary explanation of mindful machines. Before computers learn to think, Dyson writes, they will learn to dream.

Mountains Beyond Mountains
Tracy Kidder is my hero of narrative nonfiction. His under-appreciated Among Schoolchildren sparked some of my own writing ambitions. I've read that Mountains Beyond Mountains is Kidder's favorite of his own work, the story of Dr. Paul Farmer's Herculean efforts to create a functioning health care system in rural Haiti. Kidder's portrait of the brilliant, bristly Farmer, whose inspiring, dogged selflessness somehow bridges the disparate worlds of Harvard Med and Haiti through startling selflessness, is unforgettable storytelling, which, when it comes down to it, is the highest praise I know. This book's been around for a few years, but its power and relevance have only grown, as the mission of Farmer's Partners in Health has expanded to Africa, and he is now a United Nations special envoy to Haiti.

Interested in Narrative Nonfiction? Check out these earlier posts: Getting Started: Writing Narrative Nonfiction and Why Great Research Enables Great Writing.