Why I buy non-fiction

A couple of weeks ago, on a post about monthly library usage, Buried in Print left a comment about buying versus borrowing non-fiction that I’ve been pondering ever since.

The exchange ended with the question: Have you always bought more NF than fiction, or has it become a habit over time?

And I’ve been thinking about this ever since, about my relationship to non-fiction versus fiction, why I’m drawn to one over the other when I buy books, why it’s important to me to buy non-fiction but I almost never take it out from the library.


A few times a year, I go through my collection and purge. Physical books obviously take up space and when you have as many as I do, it gets out of hand quickly. There are some books that I read that I just don’t love and I don’t mind giving them away to make space for some that I might fall for. And even though I donate books a couple of times a year, almost none of those books are ever non-fiction.

Still, I own a lot of books (I have forgone formal dining space in the apartment in favour of setting up a library). Once I started earning my own money, it became important to me to buy books. That has mostly remained true over time. I do go to the library fairly regularly, in an effort to keep the numbers of books I own down somewhat.

But given the choice to buy or borrow non-fiction? I will pretty well choose ‘buy’ every time. I impulsively buy non-fiction in a way that just doesn’t happen with fiction. Partly, this is because I have been haunted by non-fiction titles that I walked away from once only to spend months and years trying to find it again. So now? I just buy the book.

And partly, it’s because when I was a kid, I dreamed about one day having the kind of library that could be used as reference for school work. It seemed like an insane luxury not to have to troll the baby internet for knowledge, not have to physically go to the library. And that’s not to say that there were no books in my house – there were. Just not on the kinds of things I needed for my homework.

It’s important to me to buy non-fiction because I like being surrounded by history, politics, feminist voices, biographies and the kinds of books that are labelled as social science. I like being able to look something up when I want to, to look at pictures of things that happened a hundred years ago.

When I’ve not been able to afford to buy books, I’ve used the library a lot. And I always end up reading amazing non-fiction books that I then have to give back. And as is so often the case, those books haunt me as I realize that finding them to buy is no simple thing.

So buying non-fiction was a habit born of a childish desire to learn everything, to have that knowledge on hand when I needed it, for this introvert to be able to stay at home and have access to the information I need.

Of course, one could argue that the internet and smartphones have made this desire obsolete. But you all know that there is no way that I would ever trade my books for the internet.

Especially my non-fiction titles.

7 thoughts on “Why I buy non-fiction

  1. As I was reading your post, I was just nodding my head. Which struck me as strange because I was thinking of myself as way more of a fiction-person, but it all sounded so familiar. So I went and counted my shelves and I actually have four more shelves of NF than I have of fiction. But the thing is that I don’t always do anything with it once I have it (and in the past ten years I’ve bought far more fiction for sure), so it’s become all about the idea of reference and not necessarily for pleasure or, even, sad to say, use. So the moral of this story is you should keep buying more books to keep your collection fresh and relevant and inspiring. And I will figure out how to move closer to your house!

    • Haha. We were typing away at our comments at the same time, and we’ve both pretty much said the same thing about owning NF – we like to own it, but don’t always end up reading it.

    • Isn’t it funny when you discover things about yourself like that? You think you do things one way and come to find that actually, you do them another.
      It must be this idea of reference, the love of learning that keeps us all buying non-fiction. Non-fiction kind of stands the test of time better. There are few books that I think, over time, will still hold up. But non-fiction? Gets away with being a window to another time, no matter the subject matter. At one time, it was true.
      Let me know if you end up in the area! We’ll have tea!

  2. I get this. The funny thing is, even though I read far more fiction than non-fiction and even own far more fiction, when I’m buying (new) books, I’m more likely to buy nonfiction. I feel like it will last longer, or because I don’t whip through NF like I do fiction, owning it will allow me more time to read it. When I take it out of the library, I almost never get it read, always favouring the fiction. If I own it, then I have a fighting chance. And, like you, I like to be surrounded by knowledge as much as I like to be surrounded by stories. I’m just more likely to *read* the stories.

    • I understand wanting more time to read it – I’m like that with non-fiction library books too. I don’t want to feel rushed.
      I’m still more likely to *read* the stories but the non-fiction does have a fighting chance if I bring it home. I was looking at the piles of fiction and non-fiction sitting on my floor this morning and the non-fiction pile was bigger sooo…I should get on that soon.

  3. Amen, lady! This post actually made me stop and think about my own collection. And most of my unread books have grown from probably 95% Fiction, 5% Non Fiction to 70% Non Fiction and 30% Fiction as I’ve aged. I’ve never even noticed that until now. I stock-pile Non Fiction to-reads.. waiting for the day when I NEED to know about something. I have books on so many topics, just waiting, and I love knowing they are there!

    Now I’m also dying to see a big picture of your library. What an amazing room to have!! We have a roommate right now, but in the future we hope to turn our second bedroom into a spare room/ office (at least that’s what my husband calls it.. secret code for LIBRARY in my mind!!)

    • That’s quite a jump! I do notice that you have been reading way more non-fiction as per your goodreads. (not to be creepy about it hahaha)
      I think a big thing about non-fiction is that you have to be in the right headspace to read it and appreciate it. It’s not always going to be the right time to read a hefty biography you know? But it’s so nice knowing that when you *are* ready, it’s there for you!
      That is very clearly code for a library. I promise you that my library isn’t as impressive as you think it is. It’s two of those massive Expedit bookshelves from Ikea, wedged together to form a corner. In our next place, I want built ins that reach to the ceiling. Really any available wallspace should just be bookshelves.

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