Note: I actually wrote almost this entire post yesterday! And then I meant to finish it "later" but...later didn't come until today, as you can see. Sorry! More to come!
5. The book can be (relatively) good even if the writing is bad.
A prime example of this is The Teacher Who Couldn't Read by John Corcoran. The writing style is sloppy and childish, but it was written by a man who had barely learned to write. If you're busy critiquing the writing style of that book, you're missing the point. Another, milder example is A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. The writing is pretty bleh (and sometimes vomit-inducing) but the story can be worth it. (Don't take that as a recommendation for all audiences. Only if you have a strong stomach.) This is rarely the case with fiction, at least for me. Never is the plot so interesting that I can summon the will to slog through horrific writing.
4. There are often fantastic illustrations or photos within the pages.
This one is pretty indulgent and I wouldn't even say it's usually true, but it still seems to happen a lot more often than it does in fiction. (When fiction does have illustrations, I usually can take them or leave them. Exception: Coraline by Neil Gaiman. Again, requires a strong stomach, but for different reasons.) I might have added this to the list because I've been busy reading books about chocolate with both illustrations and photos. It doesn't get much better than that.
3. It's not an escape from the world; it's an adventure into it.
People are always talking about reading as an "escape." Well, that might be what some people need, but it's certainly not why I read. I don't read because I want to do less; I read because I wish I could do more. I wish I could spend weeks tasting French food, observing Buddhist monks, or building houses in Africa, but there are only so many experiences a poor college student can have (at the moment). And as much as I'm enjoying the experiences I am having, I like to be able to cram in more, however vicariously.
2. It's actually true.
I've always had a hard time articulating this, but this is usually the reason I give when I try to tell people why I like non-fiction better than fiction. I'll just put it bluntly and not try to explain it: Stories are so much more exciting/inspiring/shocking/interesting when they're actually true. Yes, sometimes fiction can describe truth. I'm not saying fiction is 100% not true. But it's not fact.
When I was a kid, my family used to enjoy reading together. We spent about half an hour an evening gathering around to listen to my dad reading aloud. (Funny enough, I was often the party pooper who left in the middle or who didn't come at all. I wish I had taken more advantage of that time with my family.) One day we decided to read The Swiss Family Robinson, an adorable tale about a family that gets shipwrecked and uses their amazing skills and knowledge of the wilderness to survive on an island. We hadn't gotten five pages into the book when my dad began laughing. Everything that the family "knew" about survival was ridiculous and unrealistic. The author must not have known much about surviving on an island. We moved on to the next book.
That's an extreme case, but it happens quite often with a novel that I wonder how realistic it actually is, or whether it could ever happen. For example, Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I really enjoyed the book, but I have no idea whether it's actually possible to live on a lifeboat with a tiger. It brought up a lot more questions than it answered.
There are so many incredible, unbelievable, fantastic stories in the world--even crazier than anything anyone could make up--that are real and true. And there are people to tell those stories. And reading about people living through horrible experiences and rising above them, or fulfilling their dreams, or changing the world, and knowing that it really happened...nothing inspires me more.