Largely all of my non-fiction reading in 2015 followed along with the path of our travels, sometimes indirectly as with The Orchid Thief (I met Susan Orlean at the Singapore Writer’s Festival and decided to buy her book during a signing). Others I read out of curiosity or because a listing on BookBub caught my eye. You’ll see two very different styles here in non-fiction opening sentences: many of these books are written in an engaging narrative non-fiction style while others are give priority to the info-dump. Both are effective, but which makes for more engaging reading? You decide.
22) Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System by Roberto Saviano (2006)
The container swayed as the crane hoisted it onto the ship.
Saviano begins this epic first-hand account at the shipping terminal in a style that could be mistaken for fiction. But wait! Isn’t this supposed to be a book about organized crime? It is and, as you’re about to see, the syndicates in and around Naples, Italy made their millions in counterfeit merchandise. The first sentence is rather dull, but it focuses your attention on a single image: that of a swaying container. What’s in it? Where did it come from? Where was it headed? We keep reading to find out.
23) The Tipping Point: How Little Things can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
For Hush Puppies — the classic American brushed suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole — the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995.
If I am ever in need of a reminder that I am not a trend setter, this sentence will do well to remind me. Despite attending college a mere 90 miles from the Brooklyn kids who were simultaneously making Hush Puppies desirable (presumably without irony), I had no idea until reading this book in 2015 that Hush Puppies ever enjoyed anything approaching a renaissance. To me, they were the shoes you couldn’t wait to grow out of when you were twelve years old. Nevertheless, we have all heard of Hush Puppies and Gladwell begins his book about how a handful of trend-setters in New York almost single-handedly created a craze that may have saved this shoe company from extinction. The Tipping Point goes on to discuss far heavier topics later in the book, but this sentence and the chapter that follows hooks us with something light and relatable.
24) Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert D. Kaplan (2010)
Al Bahr al Hindi is what Arabs called the ocean in their old navigational treatises.
Unlike the previous two entries, Monsoon begins with the kind of dry statement of fact that can turn off a lot of readers. It’s almost as if this sentence were a gateway designed to filter out those with only a fleeting interest in the subject matter. Kaplan’s knowledge of each and every country along the Indian Ocean’s shoreline runs exceedingly deep and his understanding of American diplomatic, commercial, and militaristic interests and policies knows no bounds. Monsoon is a think-tank kind of book designed for decision makers and, apparently, people like my wife and I who thought it would be worth reading as we crossed the ocean aboard a cargo ship. It was. And we learned a lot, but that first sentence certainly left me no illusions about what we were signing up for.
25) The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean (1998)
John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all of his front teeth.
I attended a seminar with Susan Orlean at the Singapore Writer’s Festival where she talked about adding humor to your narrative non-fiction. Her primary tip: let the humanity shine through. She does this wonderfully in the first sentence of The Orchid Thief. Even if we’re not aware that John Laroche is the title character — hell, even if we have no interest in orchids — we’re certainly going to keep reading on account of the descriptive, funny, and easy—going narrative. The entire book is filled with as much charm and simply, subtle humor as this sentence. Those looking to write narrative non-fiction should study it at once.
26) Kansai Cool: A Journey into the Cultural Heartland of Japan by Christal Whelan (2014)
Japan is exceedingly mountainous, and long from north to south, and for most of its history has been defined more by region than by nation.
Back to the info dump style of opening a book. I have two problems with this opener. First, I think most people looking to read a cultural study of Japan are going to know that the company is elongated north-to-south and primarily mountainous (the country is practically all mountains). Secondly, this sentence just feels really at-odds with the title. Kansai is a region on the main island of Honshu, and it is certainly worth explaining right away that the country’s history is more regional than national. Otherwise, why would Kansai be significant? No problem there. But when you’re going to call your book Kansai Cool, I think you should probably avoid beginning with a very un-cool info dump. This is not to suggest the book isn’t well-written or informative or worth reading. But in a vacuum, for the purposes of this experiment, I think this is one of the weaker sentences in this sample.
27) Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi (1945)
Many years have gone by, years of war and of what men call History.
The author is telling us, subtly, that he is writing of past events. Distant past events. Much time has passed since the events he’s going to relate to us and it’s up to us to trust that his memory hasn’t failed him. Similarly, we must hope that the benefit of perspective aids in his understanding of those events. Carlo Levi was a well-known political dissident who was exiled to a remote southern region of Italy in 1935 so he has the benefit of most of his audience already being familiar with who he was and what he underwent. Christ Stopped at Eboli is a dramatic telling of Levi’s year in exile amidst unimaginable poverty and deplorable living conditions. The book, written in the narrative tone of this opening sentence, shone a spotlight on a hideous part of life in Italy and essentially shamed the government into action.
28) The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo (1906)
Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage.
At first glance, this appears like an ordinary info-dump style of opening, but I’d argue that there’s more to it than that. That the drink “grew into a beverage” suggests a complex and (hopefully) interesting history that we might not be aware of. Kakuzo is promising us a journey with this opening sentence, and one he delivers. The Book of Tea chronicles the history of tea from Chinese medicine to beverage to the orchestrated beauty of a Japanese tea ceremony.
29) Obscene Thoughts: A Pornographer’s Perspective on Sex, Love, and Dating by Dave Pounder (2013)
After working for several years in the adult film industry as “Dave Pounder,” I decided to move from performing to producing and directing.
This sentence, taken from the book’s introduction, helps us to understand the author’s career. This is an important piece of information to get across when reading a psychology book – which this is (though little more than barstool psychology). It’s his bona fides. And since those who work in the adult film industry are notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to talking about their profession, we’re immediately curious by this admission. Knowing we’ve taken the bait, he hooks us with the following sentences revealing some of the observations that he made after his career shift. It’s an opener that works well.
That sums up my reading from 2015. I’m averaging a book a week in 2016 so these posts may just get even longer next year. Thanks for reading and please be sure to leave a comment or suggestion below.