Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Challenge of Nonfiction

Last week I responded to Marc Aronson's post about the challenges of nonfiction. He defines the two challenges as "context and engagement." I have been thinking through what this means for teachers and students. Context (in teacher-speak) is "prior knowledge" - all the stuff you know about a topic that makes it possible to understand what you are reading. Building a store of prior knowledge is a huge reason for reading both nonfiction and a greater variety of fiction. Readers who only read about what they know from their personal experience are not building collecting a store of knowledge that will help them understand the world. Engagement is a bigger problem. Readers who are engaged in their reading not only understand, they care. Perhaps it is easier to be pulled into what you read when the author's voice sounds more like yours - when it is more colloquial or speech-like. It is easier to read and understand simpler text with shorter sentences, but that isn't enough to make them engaging. The most popular fiction books tend to be those where the language of the book - the voice of the narrator and the characters - seems real to the reader. "Relateable" as some students say. (Yes - I realize that relateable is a questionable word, but it is very much in the air.)

It is worth seeking out nonfiction that grabs the reader and pulls them in. Authors such as Marc Aronson that strive to balance connecting to the reader with solid, really interesting research aim to engage readers without watering down the content. After all, finding really interesting and surprising information is one reason why we read nonfiction! It's not all about engaging with the author, it's about the story - and best of all the story is real!

Applying these ideas to the real world of books: This summer I have enjoyed two wonderful adult nonfiction best sellers. (Yes I do sometimes read "grownup" books!) Stacy Schiff's wonderfully entertaining and occasionally racy Cleopatra, and the more staid but equally wonderful 1776 of David McCullough. The Cleopatra biography often strikes a conversational tone. I described it to a friend as Chatty and "snarky." I kept wanting to read snippets out loud just for fun. Although well-researched and densely foot-noted, the author's tone often didn't seem far from the office water-cooler. 1776 on the other hand is written in a more academic style. The sentences are longer and definitely not conversational in tone. The story however is gripping, and I ended feeling I knew the characters in a deeper and more personal way than I had from my prior knowledge history. Both books are wonderful in their own way, but one is easier to engage with on the surface partly because the author chose to use a more colloquial tone with less complex language and a more familiar tone.

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