the author as adventurer
The most engrossing book I've ever read is The Game by Neil Strauss. I read all 450 pages the same day I bought it. Even though the subject matter was somewhat juvenile (in retrospect) and the actual "secret society of pick-up artists" that Strauss wrote about turned out to be nothing like his glamorous description, the book itself is a masterpiece of popular nonfiction.
Why was it so successful? Neil is a great writer and did a lot of things right. But three major reasons stand out:
- The physical presence of the book - the cover is sleek and simple. More than that, it has a thick, leathery feel that gives it a certain sense of authority and mystery. It appears to be modeled after the Bible - the perfect foil for a tome of illicit information. Once you get the book in your hands, you just have to buy it.
- It's full of "secrets" - at the time The Game was published, the pick-up community was still largely unknown by the general public. This book offered a glimpse inside of a sub-culture of men who were doing things that everyone else could only dream about. It also let the reader in on some of the pick-up artist's most important tips.
- It was an adventure - the Game is not a guide for picking up women, nor is it a detached overview of the phenomenon of seduction. It's the story of nerdy Neil Strauss' personal descent into a strange world full of beautiful women, Hollywood stars, and egomania.
#3, more than the other 2 reasons, was the key to the book's blow-out success. Strauss didn't study the pick-up community through reading books about it or interviewing its leaders, he joined it. He moved into a house of other pick-up artists and adopted an entirely new persona. The reader felt as though he or she was in the author's shoes, becoming a master of the art of seduction. Strauss' total commitment to the lifestyle turned an interesting concept into a 2-month NYT bestseller.
The nonfiction author must lead the reader on an adventure. In some cases, it may be possible to reverse engineer an adventure through dissecting scholarly studies and ancient sources, but that's not the optimal approach. My fear in writing The Achilles Gene is that it will feel too much like history, too stale, too academic. I've been thinking a lot lately about how to lead the reader on a roller coaster through Alexander's empire, just as Strauss did through the L.A.'s seedy nightlife.
Unlike Strauss, I can't join the world I'm writing about. But I can visit its remnants. With that in mind, I booked a flight to Athens for early next year. The country's economy is falling apart right now so tickets and other travel expenses are especially cheap. As long as crime rates don't spike, there's no better time to go.
I'm still not entirely sure how to make a 3000 year old story feel like an adventure. But I figure that going on an adventure of my own is the first step to figuring it out.