The challenge of the writer of non-fiction intended for a general readership is that usually the general readership doesn’t care about your topic. The big, obviously interesting topics have already been written about, by writers with bigger advances than you. So, you’ve probably picked something somewhat quirky. Readers don’t think they’re interested in your topic. Your job is to convince them that they’re wrong by pulling them through the book.
A current way of doing so is to introduce chapters and sections with a bit of nonfiction narrative that is quirkily interesting in itself, and then reveal that it is relevant to the book in some unexpected way. The reader begins happily surprised to find herself interested in the history of quail shoots or the discovery of floor wax, and then gets an extra squeeze of joy when she finds out that the digression – promisingly short – enlightens the overall topic.
This sort of writing has the structure of a joke: the sudden revelation of meaning. And I find it quite enjoyable as a reader when in the hands of a master such as Malcolm Gladwell, whose brilliance at it I think has driven the use of this style. And, yes, I use the technique myself, albeit lamely.
My hypothesis – and it is nothing more than that – is that the Web has abetted the spread of this literary form in two ways. First, the technique is a way of sustaining interest across the attention spans the Web has fragmented. Second, the Web makes it astoundingly easy for a writer to find digressive anecdotes and stories. You think it might be fun for the reader to begin a chapter with an account of the superstar team that analyzed why the Challenger shuttle exploded? Ten seconds later, you’ve got a rich set of materials listed for you. The reader would enjoy an account of the origins of the phrase “turtles all the way down”? The Web considers it done.
Of course, using this technique effectively is an entirely different story. But, the Web gives us both the motive and the means.