I’m late in the list of readers to take in the pleasures of Robert Kurson’s 2004 book, Shadow Divers. It’s a wonderful book, but I think most of you already knew that. So instead of talking just about Shadow Divers, I’ll use it as an example in exploring a broader question: what kind of nonfiction works in book groups?
I’ve seen naysayers argue that book groups should avoid nonfiction entirely, and while that’s just silly book bigotry, it does contain a kernel of truth: take special care when choosing a nonfiction title for your group. If the author’s point of view is one sided, a nonfiction choice can alienate book club members who differ with it. If the treatment lacks subtlety or is to matter of fact to leave room for debate, the conversation may run out of energy before it really gets started. If the subject matter is too specific, some of your readers will simply be bored and may not bother to read the book. Narrow nonfiction should only be read by groups that have agreed in advance that their interests are specific and focused.
The good news is that when picking nonfiction, most groups can follow the same principles they should follow when selecting fiction: look for books that appeal on many different levels. Shadow Divers is a great example, and has been used successfully by many groups. Kurson begins like a great fiction writer, establishing interesting characters: John Chatterton is a diver governed by a strong sense of fair play and an overriding respect for the history of the boats he salvages. Richie Kohler is wilder and gives priority to how much treasure he can salvage from a wreck, but the history grabs him too, and eventually transforms him. Bill Nagle is a great diver who has succumbed to alcohol. Just like a great novelist, Kurson surrounds these central characters with an odd cast of secondary characters and the rivalries and interplay between these divers make his story work even before we consider content.
The second level of appeal here is to frame the story in a great setting, and since this is nonfiction, to show knowledge of the field and a passion that can be conveyed to others. Most of us will never try deep sea diving, but Kurson’s mastery of the subject makes us understand how it works and why divers spend their money, neglect their other life pursuits, and risk their health and lives. He makes us familiar with the equipment, the practices, and the many challenges that make diving so tough: physical exertion, diminished mental capacity, equipment pushed to the edge of functionality, the danger of currents, the limits of vision, and the ever-changing environment under the sea.
Shadow Divers isn’t just about diving, it’s also about the history of submarine warfare in World War II and Kurson navigates elegantly between the two. When his contemporary characters start to become familiar, he shifts to the German crewmen of the U-boat and the paths that led them to pursue one of the most dangerous duties available to any combatant from any country in a war full of dangerous jobs. His research is nowhere more apparent than when he brings these long-dead Germans back to life.
And there’s a third frame here: that of research. If a librarian wanted to explain the excitement of chasing an esoteric question through a sea of conflicting documents, she couldn’t do much better than to use this story as an example. Every hour spent underwater by the divers is backed by days spent in research, and Kurson makes it clear how diving into a new archive or plumbing the depths of a historical source can be just as exciting as diving into the sea.
Another appeal here is plot. This is nonfiction with a story better than that in most novels. The divers take a risk and are rewarded by finding something that wasn’t supposed to exist: a U-boat sunk off the coast of New Jersey. At a greater depth than most wrecks, the submarine is especially dangerous, with damage that threatens further collapses at any moment and spaces even more claustrophobic than those in other ships. The U-boat is a mystery ship and it becomes the obsession of Chatterton and Kohler to prove conclusively which boat of Germany’s fleet they have found. They try dozens of ways to answer this question before finally getting to the truth. The pacing is excellent and Kurson unspools his plot in a way that builds the mystery and suspense carefully then resolves it gracefully.
Finally, Kurson finds the conflicts in his story and makes the most of them, a practice that some nonfiction writers can neglect. How should the divers balance the desire for treasure with a respect for the gravesite of the submariners? How should we view the contributions of enemy soldiers in historical context? When should trust in the historical record give way to skepticism? How much should the divers risk physical safety or sacrifice other aspects of their lives in order to make a new discovery or to correct the historical record?
When you’re selecting books for your group, especially when nonfiction is under consideration, look for books that appeal on this many levels. With a book has this much depth and is still this much fun to read, you can’t help but succeed with your readers, no matter how diverse your group might be.