The Non-Fiction Test

“There were so many other amazing things in this world.

They opened up inside of me like a river. Like I didn’t know I could take a breath and then I breathed. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next moment I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.

I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too.” – Wild by Cheryl Strayed


I feel very fortunate to have fallen in love with non-fiction-for-pleasure reading. It wasn’t until after college when I joined a book club that alternated monthly between fiction and non-fiction that I (mostly) voluntarily read non-fiction that didn’t count for anything school-related. I feel that when I meet people, they are exclusive to one or the other, and I always found myself envious of people who were so adamant about non-fiction being their go-to choice. What’s the fun in that, I thought. Where’s the magic? So, when I was forced by a group of people I liked and respected, I began my journey with this book, and what a journey it began.

I have so far learned a few lessons on my journey:

1) Memoirs are kind of like cheating on this notion of presenting fact. They have all the drama of fiction with very little research that so often accompanies non-fiction, and they allow the author the chance to be, well, creative. Just ask this guy or this guy. It takes the idea of the unreliable narrator to a whole new place – except this time, we’re supposed to mostly accept it as fact.

2) I don’t necessarily learn much more from reading non-fiction than fiction. Fiction can relay similar enduring understandings about our past, present, future – about our hearts, minds, and trends in society. This was a comforting realization, but I realize that it only underscores my bias toward fiction… so I don’t allow myself to use this to talk myself out of picking up a non-fiction book.

3) When reflecting on whether or not I like a non-fiction book, I’ve developed The Non-Fiction Test. It’s quite simple: is an entire book necessary, or could this have just made a really good article? Books that have failed this test: Moonwalking with EinsteinThe Happiness Project, and The Big Short. These are all books that contain incredible research, not cringe-worthy writing, and food for thought I still consider often today. But, I sincerely believe I could have gotten the gist with a long article. I still think Malcolm Gladwell is in this category, and in no way does this diminish his effect/influence as a writer and thinker. His books are mostly stories – couldn’t we just hear one, his thesis, and be done with it?

Books that have passed this with flying colors: Bringing up Bebe, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (my first experience reading Sedaris is a story for another time), Unbroken, and The Cuckoo’s Egg. These are books I’d even go back and re-read one day, if not for the stories then for the research and/or life lessons I still remember and draw upon very regularly.

I realize this Test is biased toward memoirs – it’s impossible to capture a life story and/or satisfying, life-changing experience in an article… but so what? This Test has helped me to reflect on my non-fiction reading in a way that makes sense to me.

All this is said to describe why I loved and would recommend with great enthusiasm the memoir by Cheryl Strayed Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I was hesitant to pick it up with the fear that it’d be another Eat, Pray, Love saga that would annoy me but secretly interest me and make me hate myself for it. Instead, I discovered some truly beautiful prose, heart-breaking sorrow, and great triumph unlike what any fiction writer could fabricate. Sure, she’s egotistical, kind of stupid at times, and so pretentious as to change her last name to reflect her mostly ridiculous life decisions. But, hot damn, she is good with words. I was sucked into her brain and not willing to leave it. I have other thoughts on what it means to write a memoir and how this affects people in the memoir, but that can be left for another time. I’ll leave on this note: Reese Witherspoon plays her in the film to be released in December, and count me in for opening weekend.


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