As a reader, I'm instinctively drawn to fiction. I like a good story; I want to be pulled into a tale without any sense of how it may or may not connect directly my real life. Fiction expands and examines life by centering experience within the realm of ideas, and that is why I can sometimes be forgiving of novels that have a few structural flaws or a slight weakness in characterization. If the ideas brought up in a novel or short story are fascinating; if they resonate; if they leave me thinking beyond the scope of the pages of the book, then I'll be compelled to stay with them.*
I'm much more selective when it comes to nonfiction. Not because I am limited by my habit of looking first at the fiction shelves, but because I want much the same thing from nonfiction as I do from fiction. I want a good story. I want to be pulled in. I want what I learn from nonfiction to be centered within the realm of ideas. As I've said elsewhere, I believe facts can be beautifully written. With limited time to get through my "To Be Read" pile, however, nonfiction has to grab my attention and keep it right from the start. It's likely to do so if the writing is compelling.
It's interesting to me that the two most frequently accessed posts on this blog are The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry--a novel of Big Ideas--and The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson--a nonfiction journey into "the madness industry." Both are fascinating; both tell a compelling story; both have characters with motivations we are intrigued by.
Fiction? Nonfiction? When a story is good, it's good. Can't ask much more than that.
*This is not to say I don't read for pure entertainment. I do enjoy novels that float along without Themes hanging from the story like ballast--pure story is lovely and a much-welcomed change of pace from Big Old Tomes--but English major habits of digging deep (perhaps deeper than is good for me) die hard.