Saturday, December 18, 2010

TSS: How important are FACTS to you?

Hello, Saloners!  You find me today on the glory of WINTER BREAK.  That's right.  No school for three full weeks!  I am hoping to get a good amount of reading done before next semester starts, but we'll see what actually happens.  First on the list?  A joint read with my blogger BFF Zibilee of The Hakawati.  I got the book in last year's Book Blogger Holiday Swap and haven't read it yet, so now is the time!  Carpe Diem and all that.

The other day I was listening to A History of the World in 100 Objects at the gym.  I am so close to done with that seriously addictive series, and I fully intend to post here when I get through it.  If you enjoy history, I highly recommend this podcast!  It's fantastic. Also, as we are all book lovers, there is also a companion book.  While listening to this glorious series, I realized that while I love history, it is not the facts that excite me, but the romance and possibility associated with history that I love.

I could wax lyrical about history and my love for it for eons, truly.  But I would rather hear your thoughts.  When reading non-fiction, how important are facts to you?  Do you pick up a book because of the facts that will be presented, the story the facts will present?  Or do you read it for something else?  I am not sure if I am expressing myself clearly, so let me try to give a few examples.

When I go to a museum and look at a historical object, I don't think much about the object itself.  It could be a painting of a grand old dame, an old desk, an ancient vase or even a chamberpot, really.  I don't think about how the object was made, whether we know who made it, how important the person was.  I think about the other stuff.  Who used it?  How often was it used?  What else was in the room with it?  Who cleaned it?  What serendipitous events happened that brought the object right here in front of me?

And the same thing happens for me when I read a history book, too.  I loved the book 1491, for example.  I think the author has gotten a little bit of backlash over his research or whether he goes too far with the evidence he has in shaping his theories.  But I don't care.  I like that he had such big ideas about what the Americas were like before Europeans came and lived here.  I like that he felt so much passion for his subject that he opened my mind up to an entirely new avenue of thought and imagination.  I guess what I am trying to say is that I love the possibility of a non-fiction book to rock the foundations of your world.  I adore fiction and read it almost exclusively, but when I read a really, really good non-fiction book, it keeps me thinking for days and the ideas often stay in my head much longer.  So I don't mind, sometimes, if there are leaps of faith made or conclusions drawn from small amounts of data.  I just like that someone dared to go there and take me with him and change my perception of the world.

I would venture to say that this is why my brother likes science so much and wants to be a doctor.  (Well... hopefully not the only reason.)  But there is so much in medicine that has the capacity to wow you.  The body can heal in so many amazing ways, but there are also so many things that need fixing.  The more you learn, the more you are blown away by its complexity.  And whenever I think of science books, I always remember Ana's review of that bizarre book Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer because I can tell that the same thing happens to her, too.  Parasites are not a happy topic to dwell on.  But, in Carl Zimmer's hands, they really came alive for Ana and their marvelous history really hit home for her.

And perhaps I'm doing non-fiction a disservice, separating "facts" from "wow factor."  I know facts are important and that people shouldn't just make things up.  I just mean that I don't read non-fiction so much to learn about the past or the science or whatever the subject might be- I read it in the hope that the author will say something that floors me and alters my thinking pattern for days or weeks or even forever.

So what about you?  How important are facts to you?


  1. Oh! I LOVED Hakawati! I bet you will too. :)

    I'm a fan of nonfiction, and I read it for both information/facts and the writing, depending on its topic. But I'm confused about your separation of 'facts' from 'wow' stuff as it relates to science...since you're saying it's the facts that are so interesting, no? (Vs the writing) Also, Carl Zimmer is awesome: he made me care about e.coli! lol

    Also, have you read Last Days of the Incas? It sounds kind of like 1491, which I want to read now! So I bet you'd like it. :) And Laurel Thatcher Ulrich writes marvelous history books focused on the stories behind artifacts!

  2. Argh! Forgot to subscribe to follow up comments.

  3. I read a lot of science-related articles, along with mathematics problems, which I seldom mention on my blog.. I get all my facts right!


    Here is my Sunday Salon post!

  4. Well you know I don't read a lot of nonfiction, and I definitely don't read a lot of history, so I don't even know WHAT my opinions are here! In fact, a couple weeks ago I did a Sunday Salon wondering how people evaluated nonfiction, because I always feel very strange in doing that.

    My youngest son is a huge history fan. I wonder how exactly he thinks about facts and circumstances...

  5. I'm definitely more of a story behind the facts sort of person when I'm reading nonfiction. If it's just facts without any sort of analysis or speculation or even just stunning writing, it gets boring--too much like reading an encyclopedia.

    However, I do think it's important that authors be clear when they're sharing facts and when they're speculating. I thought the author of 1491 did a good job of that, but I've read other books where the author based his or her speculations on other speculations that were based on still other speculations. In the end, it just felt like the author was making stuff up with no real evidence at all.

  6. The facts are more important to me. Sometimes I think the theories about the facts are not justified, but facts will always be facts, if you know what I mean!

  7. I don't read nonfiction for the facts, exactly, but I also strongly dislike the feeling of finding out that something an author represented as a fact was actually either very controversial or speculation -- no matter how evidence-based. It makes me wonder how much of what else that author wrote in the book can be trusted, and I end up feeling mislead. And one place where I really hate speculation is in biographies -- which is hard on the authors, I know, because it's hard to write a biography of someone long dead without speculating on how they must have felt/what they must have thought. But it always feels so presumptuous to me.

    But then, I am a person who is fascinated by facts, for their own sake. The stories behind things are interesting, too; it's not that I'm a fan of trivia books. But in the hands of a skillful writer, the facts themselves can be the story, and that's one of my favourite kinds of nonfiction.

  8. Eva- Ooh, I'm glad you liked Hakawati! I'm going to start it today, I hope :-)

    I have not read Last Days of the Incas, but I will put it and a book by Ulrich on my wish list now for sure.

    As to separating facts from wow in science- yes, that's harder to do than in history. But it's the difference between knowing the body produces white blood cells and knowing WHY the body produces white blood cells. It's knowing intuitively that you don't get sick with the same disease twice and then realizing that's because your body has worked to make you immune. There are facts- and then there is the application of the facts that can really impress me. Does that make any more sense?

    Gautami- Well, I don't *think* with math, one can get facts wrong quite so much!

    Amanda- I wonder how your son does it, too! I don't really know how to evaluate non-fiction, either. Though I don't know if I judge fiction very well, either, so I guess I'm safe on that front.

    Teresa- I think it's important to be clear on that front, too, but I think that a lot of history is also up for interpretation and re-alignment based on new evidence, etc. For example, if you were to read a Victorian-era history of the New World, it would still be based on facts of the time, but the facts might just be wrong :-)

    Rhapsody- I actually disagree that facts will always be facts. I think science and history are constantly being re-evaluated. Sure, it may be a fact that George Washington was in X city at some time and at that time, he came up with a brilliant military tactic. But does that necessarily mean he went to the city for purpose of coming up with the tactic? I think we often assign facts to things that perhaps don't exist.

    Kiirstin- I know that feeling with biographies, too. I often feel uncomfortable with the amount of "emotional" side information that biographies bring. But again, like I said to Teresa and Jill above, I don't always think that facts are that set in stone.

  9. When I read HR I really do not care. But when I read Painting Mona Lisa the facts did annoy me. Cos she took real people and changed their lives too much. I just wanted to say, noo that guy did not marry Lisa, he did other things. So yes facts are important sometimes. I guess mostly when it deals with people that have lived

  10. Anonymous12/19/2010

    When I read nonfiction, I'm usually reading it for good stories (same reason I read fiction), and I won't enjoy a nonfiction book if it doesn't tell me good stories. On the other hand, if I discover a writer's research is shoddy and his/her conclusions based on an unsound foundation, it can spoil the book for me. I like to be able to depend on my nonfiction writers. :p

    I'm not demanding perfection or anything, though! I just hate it when writers take a cut-rate approach to their research. My favorite-ever nonfiction book, And the Band Played On, makes some claims about the so-called "Patient Zero" of the American AIDS epidemic that have since been partially discredited. In that case, the author did an unbelievable amount of research for the book and appears to have had all the integrity in the world (he didn't get tested for HIV until after the book was published, because he was afraid that if he did have it he'd lose his impartiality). The science at the time he was writing suggested that the Patient Zero theory was correct, that's all.

    Which is to say, I don't demand perfection. Just that the authors are making strong, genuine efforts to present the facts accurately.

  11. Aw, you used me as an example :P I love what you said in your last sentence, about having the way you think altered, even if just for a few days. I love it when a book manages to do that as well.

    As many people have already said in their comments, I care about the quality of the writer's research, but that's not the main thing for me. This reminds me of something I was thinking about the other day: I read a biography of Wilkie Collins that was VERY factual, but also very dry - mainly because the author was too cautious to write about Collins or the people in his life with any amount of emotional insight.

    I understand his decision to stick to the facts, but I kept thinking that there must have been ways to give us a glimpse of what those people experienced emotionally without straying too far from the truth. The fact that he decided not to made for a much poorer book.

    Sorry; this is a bit of a tangent, but hopefully it illustrates how I feel about this :P

  12. Yay for winter break!! I'm so happy that I don't have school for the next month.

    When I read non-fiction, I want the facts and the "wow factor". When non-fiction is written in a way that interests readers, it helps reader to understand the life and times that's been written about.

  13. Blodeuedd- Yes, I don't like when historical fiction just makes up completely different facts for things without acknowledging that, either. If that's what you want to do, make it about people who weren't real...

    Jenny- Yes, that's what I mean, really. If your conclusions are drawn from the available data at the time, then it's not really like you are making things up, is it? I agree with you, though. I often feel disappointed when I find non-fiction authors have feet of clay.

    Nymeth- Of course I used you as an example! It was in hopes of getting an email back from you ;-) I think with biography, it can be a two-edged sword. Yes, you want to present the facts and no, you don't want to draw conclusions. But combined, that can make for a dry story that makes it hard for readers to understand, really, what draw that subject had for you. Obviously, to write a biography on someone, he/she has to be interesting to the biographer at least! So having that spark of interest come out is key.

    Vasilly- Yes, I'm so excited, too! I think you are spot on with your observation. I think if it is interesting, then more people will enjoy reading it and get that wow factor to do more.

  14. You WILL get an e-mail from me very soon, promise :P

  15. I love reading non-fiction, but I also want the facts to be accurate, after all, it is supposed to be non-fiction, if I just wanted a good story I'd read fiction instead. I think it's perfectly possible for non-fiction to have 'the wow factor'. The subject matter obviously grabbed the author's interest in some way - a good writer ought to be able to convey that enthusiasm and love of the subject to us ignoramuses without distorting the facts.

  16. I love non-fiction that tells a story and while the facts are sort of important to me, I can handle it when a little liberty or speculative thought is imbued. Some of the best non-fiction reads have been very fact laden, but that doesn't really bother me either. I think there is a balance, and when it's done well, the facts seem to effortlessly slide right into the story the author is trying to tell. When it's not done well, things become far too dense, and I lose interest. Those heavily fact-laden books sometimes come off as too dry for me, but I know there are others out there who love them! And I must repeat myself when I say that I love, love, love these posts! They make me think so much more deeply about the things I find do and don't work for me in what I read.

  17. Now I can't wait to read 1491! I read nonfiction to learn new things and I love it when something i read gets me interested in something I haven't explored before.

  18. My favorite books are fiction but based on actual events. The family might be fictional but they are living through a specific time in history (I want the historical facts to be correct). Good post, it got me thinking.

  19. I think people who are fans of fiction in general would always be interested in the stories surrounding the facts. I mean it's quite easy to know the hard facts, just read wikipedia (assuming the facts are correct there :).

    ps: I'd really encourage you to read Banker to the Poor. Lots of your questions and doubts will be answered in the book.

  20. Oh for me it's ALL about the facts. I mean, I like getting some story too if it's done well... but I just can't get enough of the facts :) They are the WOW for me!

  21. I'm not crazy about fiction or non fiction getting the facts wrong (names, dates, places), especially annoying when fiction combines two or three people together and doesn't make it clear in any notes, but I don't mind mild/wild theories and speculation, as long as there's some effort to not mislead the reader.

    Most facts are assumed under the best tech of the time anyway - and by the culture that says it's a fact. Time & cultures morph, facts don't change but interpretations can and do.

    Three whole weeks! Awesome.

  22. Anonymous12/26/2010

    I read a lot more fiction than non-fiction so I'm not that bothered if the facts are a little hazy. Saying that, I have a scientific background and also have a degree in the history of science so if there is something glaringly wrong, it will bother me. But when I do read non-fiction for fun, I like the way that the facts and story envelopes me and transports me into another world, just like fiction:)


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