In praise of the weighty nonfiction tome

Cadillac-desert-book-coverI really like weighty nonfiction tomes: the ones that are half novel and half history book and half explication of some complex political or social or scientific concept. You know the kind I'm talking about: The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksGuns, Germs, and Steel; The Making of the Atomic Bomb; The Power Broker; The Life of Lyndon Johnson, etc.

There are not enough of these books in the world. Sometimes it seems, superficially, like there are a lot, because there are so many books that attempt to do what the above books do. But most of them don't achieve quite the right mix. They fail in one of three ways:

  • Too much narrative - This is the most deadly error. When the book is all narrative, then it's functionally useless. It's basically just a vaguely unstructured novel that happens to be true. In order to be good, nonfiction needs some kind of analysis. It's got to put something together. You need to feel like you're learning something. The only narrative-heavy book that I can really recommend is And The Band Played On. That is a book that's all events. Ceaseless events. Just the slow, chronological progress of the HIV/AIDS crisis. But the events are horrifying enough that it works. Still, even there I hoped for some more analysis
  • Too much focus on personalities - People are only sort of important. Yes, there are points in time when one person's quirks alter the course of history. But it's more often the case that the historical moment calls for a certain kind of person, so that person arises. But when a book starts to fall in love with personalities, then I start to feel like I'm not really learning anything. Can particularly be a problem for business histories, true crime, and biographies.
  • Shallowness - Sometimes a book purports to explain something, and you're just like…uhhuh. For all the analysis, it doesn't really come together. Found this to be the problem with Malcolm Gladwell's latest, David and Goliath. There just wasn't enough detail there to anchor the core concepts. As a result, none of it rang true.