Fieldnotes

Global Ideas
Narrative Nonfiction

7 April 2024

Global Ideas Narrative Nonfiction Jeremy Bassetti

A few days ago, I asked on social media if there is a name for the type of nonfiction book where the author (literarily and literally) visits a different location in each chapter to explore the book’s central idea. I didn’t get any response. So, I figured I would coin the term myself. This is what I came up with:

Global Ideas Narrative Nonfiction.

In Global Ideas Nonfiction Narrative books, which are a species of travel literature, the authors take the readers on a global quest to investigate ideas. Typically, each chapter focuses on a different scene (or location) and a variation on the book’s main theme.

Each chapter, as is the case in many creative or narrative nonfiction books, is made up of two primary elements: scenes and discourse.

In the books I like to read, which have an element of travel, the scenes might involve visiting various locations around the world. These scenes drive the narrative. We follow the author as she travels someplace. But the author’s story isn’t the main focus.

The focus is on the book’s idea/premise/argument, which gets addressed in the chapter’s discourse elements. The discourse — the meaty section of the chapter — might explore the ideas related to book’s focus, the location as it relates to the idea (obviously), historical context, etc.

A chapter might look something like this:

The narrative scene sections sandwich the discourse, but the chapter’s main focus is on the exploration of the idea.

Here are some notable examples of Global Ideas Nonfiction Narrative books:

Let’s discuss one book in particular, Pico Iyer’s wonderful book Video Night in Kathmandu.

In this book (published in 1989), Iyer explores globalism and cultural hybridism. He explores a different part of the East in each chapter. The book includes chapters on the following locations: Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, The Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, and Japan. In each chapter, Iyer bounces between a descriptive narrative of his travels in that place (the scene) and unpacking the book’s main idea of globalism and cultural hybridism (the discourse).

These types of books are among my favorite because they blend global narratives with ideas. They’re not just dry academic books. And they’re not just boring travelogues. They are adventures in ideas.