On My Love Affair with Nonfiction

I’ve always been a reader. While growing up, I was the kind of girl who would rather be at home with a good book than nearly anyplace else. I would gladly have forgone high school dances, movie theater trips to see cheesy chic flicks, and middle school slumber parties for a good book. Isolating myself with a novel was always the thing that made the most sense to me.

My love affair with non-fiction most accurately began as a direct result of an ex-boyfriend’s commentary on my extensive collection of novels. “You have a lot of fiction,” he noted in a tone that let me know my bookshelves were severely lacking in his opinion without any nonfiction in the mix.

I don’t want to waste too much time on this guy since he did play a large role in encouraging some profound changes in my life. In addition to not-so-subtly encouraging me to pick up some non-fiction, this particular ex also made a passive, if not joking, dig at my domestic skills, or lack thereof. This was in high school, mind you, so at the time, I had given little thought to food nor demonstrated any particular inclination to become the next Julia Child. But I took his comment as a challenge and forced my way into the kitchen, discovering a whole new world of passion within.

But I digress. Nonfiction had been starkly absent from my avid reading life and, when this fact was brought to my attention, I quickly righted the situation. My first foray into non-fiction was Counterculture Through the Ages by Ken Goffman. Goffman’s book provided an extensive overview of countercultural movements, from Socrates up to the punk music scene. I was initially drawn to the book because of the subject matter; countercultures and social movements felt impossibly cool and I held little doubt that this first piece of nonfiction would start to steer me in the right bibliophile direction. I adored Goffman’s book and so proceeded to seek more options that were not fiction at all.

A smattering of memoirs and biographies soon followed but my undergraduate workload kept me from reading much of anything for a few years. There was the occasional Chuck Klosterman collection of essays and Prozac Nation after struggling with depression. But when I did find the time to delve into a new book, I was more likely to treat myself to absorption in a well-deserved, if not rather mindless novel than an arduous piece of carefully crafted non-fiction. When life finally offered me another opportunity to read as I chose, Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone and Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple collections of essays. It was these writings that taught me about how meaningful and personal nonfiction could be. At the time (and probably still to this day) there was no piece of writing that I related to quite as much as the title essay of Franzen’s book, a thoughtful piece on reading and solitude. Kingsolver’s essay collections (one of which I reviewed here) were what first made me seriously consider writing. Though essay collections may not be the most profitable ventures, her books made me realize that personal essays and well constructed arguments on topics of all kinds can be elegantly tied together in a single volume. Reading Kingsolver’s nonfiction produced in me a powerful desire to follow suit; I wanted to write like she did on topics as varied as hers in such wise ways.

From there, I followed my interests and found plenty of nonfiction to read on food, agriculture, and health (think Michael Pollan). As I continued to explore the realm of nonfiction, it became increasingly apparent that such books are not inherently boring, nor do they necessarily lack plot, sentimentality, theme, or story. I always imagined that a book based on reality or containing research would be unimaginative and dull. But Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals proved to me that books about real life topics, in this case human’s carnivorous habits and how animals get to our plates, can be highly entertaining and follow a remarkably narrative path. Warren St. John’s Outcasts United is easily one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in the past few years and the story of a refugee soccer team was made more powerful and engrossing because it was true. Bill McKibbin’s The Age of Missing Information is dense but raised more than a few topics for consideration, things I had to think about deeply in order to determine my own stance on them. And there are few books out there, fiction or not, with more heart than Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains.

The range of work which falls under the nonfiction categorization is impossibly vast and largely delightful for readers who indulge in what is of interest to them. Nonfiction does not necessitate writing which lacks personality, interest, or excitement, but it is something which becomes most meaningful when carefully selected by a reader. Despite the sense of inferiority and shame I initially felt when my ex commented on how little nonfiction I owned way back when, I am now rather grateful that he vocalized this judgment, because it introduced me to a whole world of valuable reading materials which I may never have considered otherwise.

On Outcasts United


I absolutely loved Warren St. John’s Outcasts United. I’m not a soccer fan but that didn’t effect my interest in this story of a soccer team composed of refugees relocated to Clarkston, Georgia in the least. St. John’s narrative follows the real life story of a Jordanian woman, Luma Mufleh, who resettles in America permanently after receiving her undergraduate education at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Luma finds herself down South just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, in a town called Clarkston where the International Rescue Committee, World Relief, and other resettlement organizations have directed an influx of refugees from the world’s most devastated and war-ravaged nations. The vast majority of these refugees belong to families that have been torn apart by the tragedies taking place in their home countries and are working tirelessly to make ends meet in a nation whose culture fails to understand, and often fails to even attempt to understand, their own. For the youth among the refugee community, however, soccer provides an outlet that most refugee parents are not so lucky to have found. It’s more common in refugee communities to see games of street soccer being played than not, and this is how Luma comes to connect with young men from the whole world over.

With bottomless determination and a headstrong attitude, Luma develops a youth soccer league for the refugees. Struggling to find players who will adhere to her strict team rules, safe spaces in which to practice, and proper equipment to outfit her teams are just the first of many obstacles that attempt to thwart Luma’s goal of establishing an organized, empowering, and successful soccer league for the refugee community. But Luma’s endless perseverance meets with numerous rewards and successes, both large and small, that most others in her position would likely never see.

St. John’s story isn’t just that of a driven soccer coach, however. Luma’s league is composed of three well-stocked teams, and the players’ stories are just as remarkable as their coach’s. Though her tough-love attitude at first serves to intimidate some players, over time the bond created goes beyond that typical of coaches and players. Luma considers her players and their kin to be her surrogate family, and her kindness and generosity toward them are in keeping with typical family behavior. From helping translate important bills to sorting out financial scams, from filling up empty pantries to coordinating discipline with mothers who can’t be present to keep an eye on their children themselves, Luma runs herself ragged caring for the refugees who become more than simply players on her soccer team.

Outcasts United is a story about soccer, relocation, the struggles that refugees face, the extraordinary determination of a single woman, and the unbelievable good that athletics can do. It’s composed of an array of intertwined stories with individual origins centuries old and thousands of miles apart. St. John’s book is at times heart-wrenching, but ultimately inspiring.