I am currently reading Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman (Version 2.0) and I can barely tear myself away from the book. Okay, the topic is already compelling: our global environmental crisis. (And if you've spent any time in the Midwest and southern Great Plains this summer, you would be witness to evidence that global warming is not a myth: severe drought in many southern areas, extended heat waves, and extremely violent storms and flooding in the north.) So, yes, he's already got me at the topic -- but his way with the written word is compelling as well. His sentences are vivid; his choices of anecdotes and quotes are incisive; and his ability to take a dense concept and slice it into accessible, digestible chunks should be the envy of all writers. And, above all, he writes with passion about his topic.
That's something that we teachers tell our students all the time: choose a topic that you are passionate about and your writing will benefit immensely. It's something that I notice in my book club discussions: the best discussions grow out of books that we either loved or hated. The mushy middle provokes nothing but more mush.
Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, is another writer who breathes both poetry and the tension of the commercial cliffhanger into nonfiction. "Nonfiction that reads like fiction" may be a cliche, but I was there on Mount Everest with the climbers. Krakauer's descriptions of the disastrous 1996 expedition had me checking my own fingers and toes for frostbite; kept me up until 3 a.m. compulsively reading "just one more page" because I couldn't bear the thought of leaving those foolhardy, yet brave men and women clinging to life on the mountain.
I recently re-read The Devil in the White City for my book club and once again fell under the spell of Erik Larson's incredible nonfiction writing. As a Chicago girl, born and bred, I appreciated the extent to which he delved into his topics: the creation of the 1893 World's Fair juxtaposed with the serial killer H.H. Holmes. His details are meticulous -- his prose is compelling, even nail-biting as he swoops from the the broad expanses of the fairgrounds as the exhibition is slowly, agonizing shaped by the hand of architect Daniel Burnham to the claustrophobic confines of the hotel of death that Holmes built and to which he lured his fair-going victims. This is nonfiction writing that sinks it teeth in you and doesn't let go.