I love nonfiction. I love to read it, and I love to write it. But when I was a child, I mostly liked fiction: Amelia Bedelia, Nancy Drew mysteries, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and so many more. I hardly remember any nonfiction. And while I enjoyed researching topics like stars or hydroelectric dams, a good story completely drew me in.
As a young adult, I had a nonfiction epiphany when I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It was unlike anything I’d read before. It’s a rambling record of the author’s observations and thoughts while living near a creek in the woods of Virginia. In a Walden-esque way, she observes the animals, plants, seasons, and sky around her. And she pins her observations to the profound. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in 1974.
One line in the book comes to mind from time to time as I transplant daisies in my garden or pull sprouted walnuts from the lawn. It’s this: “I suspect that the real moral thinkers end up, wherever they may start, in botany.”
Botany? The true philosophers end up in botany?
As I look at the tiny walnut tree I ripped from the soil, its nutshell split in two but still clinging together, white root stretching downward, green leaves making food from sunlight and air, the power of a majestic tree lying bare in my muddy gloves, I think to myself, That actually makes sense.
Because despite all the science we know about plants—where they grow, what conditions they prefer, their life cycles, etc.—there is still so much we don’t know. What does it really mean to be alive? And why?
These questions take our minds to the limits of our understanding. From there, we touch what is just beyond. And that brings us to the essence of moral and religious thought, to faith in things we believe but cannot see or fully comprehend.
Nature, history, biography—these nonfiction topics can be as startling, mysterious, and entertaining as fiction—and sometimes more so. The two genres are opposite sides of the same coin. The best books, whatever their genre, help us see the world in a new way. Whether we travel with Nancy Drew to River Heights, with Claudia and Jamie to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or with Annie Dillard to the woods by Tinker Creek, we reach the same destination: a place in our imagination that’s beyond our home, and sometimes, on the threshold of the sublime.