Cover Story “As a writer, I prefer to get bossed around by my notebook and the facts therein,” David Carr wrote in his reported memoir The Night of the Gun , one of Slate’s 50 best nonfiction books of the past 25 years. Carr was mulling over the difference between fiction and nonfiction, the novelist’s art and the reporter’s craft. “They may not lead to a perfect, seamless arc, but they lead to a story that coheres in another way, because it is mostly true.”
In the work of canon-building , nonfiction tends to get short shrift . While memoir has gained a foothold in the literary conversation, narrative and reported nonfiction tend to be ignored. It can be easy to dismiss these forms as the worthwhile but fundamentally unliterary assemblage of facts into paragraphs. Yet what reader hasn’t had her mind expanded, her heart plucked, her conscience stirred by a nonfiction book? The responsibility the writers of such books take on, to arrange the facts of the world into a form that makes sense of its tumult, can produce in the reader a kind of clarity of thought that no other genre can match.
Slate’s list of the definitive nonfiction books written in English in the past quarter-century includes beautifully written memoirs but also books of reportage, collections of essays, travelogues, works of cultural criticism, passionate arguments, even a compendium of household tips. What they all share is a commitment to “mostly truth” and the belief that digging deep to find a real story—whether it’s located in your memory, on dusty archive shelves, in Russian literature, in a slum in Mumbai—is a task worth undertaking. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology by Lawrence Weschler (Pantheon, 1995)
“What kind of place is this exactly?” Lawrence Weschler asks the proprietor of the oddball Los Angeles storefront museum he stumbles into one day, where the exhibits are surprising, whimsical, and in fact often (but not always!) entirely made up. In Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Weschler spins the story of the Museum of Jurassic Technology’s unlikely creation into an entirely winning meditation on human ingenuity and creativity, a thought experiment about how the mind responds to being amazed . The result is a deceptively simple book that—like the 16 th -century “wonder cabinets” that, Weschler explains, served as the very first museums—opens to reveal astonishments untold.
In April 1992, Christopher McCandless, a young man in search of wild, untrammeled experience, hiked into the Alaskan wilderness. Four months later, his body was found by a moose hunter. Krakauer sets out to unravel the mystery of how this adventure ended in tragedy, and the tiny mistakes that cost McCandless his life, by reading McCandless’ journals, talking to his friends, and traveling to the abandoned bus where McCandless spent his last months. Through his reporting of McCandless’ passionate and foolhardy journey into transcendence—and writing about his own, similar youthful experiences—Krakauer explores our modern relationship […]