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10 Examples of Literary Nonfiction That Make Facts Compelling

Mike Daisey argued that he had to stretch the facts in order to get at a "greater truth." These 10 works prove you can tell great stories without giving up on accuracy.

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7. The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World – Michelle Goldberg. More relevant than ever in a political season defined by backlash on reproductive rights, Goldberg’s groundbreaking investigation puts the political stakes of women’s health in full context. The Means of Reproduction spans four continents and five decades in a concise book of about 250 pages. Goldberg takes a storyteller’s stance, following the complicated people at the center of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, female circumcision, overpopulation, infant mortality, and abortion rights. She is interested in how the struggle to control reproduction intersects with the struggle for political and global power: global family planning, after all, was once a celebrated policy when the U.S. wanted to stave off population growth in poor countries during the Cold War. But when the political winds shifted, so did policy. Both eye-opening and entertaining, Goldberg captures the lives of women caught at the center of the power grabs. “What’s at stake are not lifestyles but lives,” she writes.

8. "The Intelligence Question: Are Black People Stupid?" -- Flora Johnson, Chicago Reader. This 1980 article with the provoking headline may be one of the most insightful pieces the Reader has ever published. A federal court is examining whether or not IQ tests are racist, and thus whether schools are inappropriately placing too many black students in special education classes. Johnson combines the drama of a courtroom with a nuanced history of IQ measurements, the real-life experience of kids attending all-black schools in Chicago, and the condescending expectations of white reformers. This is an article that refuses the safety of taking sides. Johnson has a fiercely thoughtful ambivalence that makes for uncomfortable reading. Who are the stupid people? Who are the smart ones? Are IQ tests useful? What do we want to measure in each other? Are all these questions the same question?

9. The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, A Death, and America’s Dilemma – Alex Kotlowitz. One of the small towns in the title, St. Joseph, is where I grew up. I first read this book on the defensive. Who was Kotlowitz to use my town as a lens to examine the unsettled and mortal stakes of modern-day racism? But in all the important ways, I had to admit that Kotlowitz gets it right in The Other Side of the River. He investigates the tension between St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Michigan. St. Joseph is a relatively prosperous tourist town famed for its Lake Michigan beaches. Benton Harbor is nearly all black; St. Joseph is nearly all white. When the body of a Benton Harbor teen is found in the river that divides the towns, Kotlowitz goes to work examining the mysterious cause of Eric McGinnis’ death – a death shrouded by the very different vantages held by citizens on either side of the river.

10. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals – Michael Pollan. Don’t let its popularity push you away; Pollan’s most celebrated book is a brilliant account of the how, why and where of American eating habits. He traces the political, social, moral, and – lest we forget – joyful stakes of our dinner choices. Pollan follows each link on the fast food, organic, industrial, hunted, and foraged food chains to create this absorbing narrative. He travels from food science labs to hunting grounds, feedlots to grass farms. Pollan’s humor and engaging cast of characters lightens the book’s provocative questions and meticulous research.


Anna Clark's writing has appeared in the American Prospect, Utne Reader, Hobart, and Writers' Journal, among other publications. She is the editor of the literary and social justice Web site, Isak.

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