My mentor at University of Houston used to always tell me that “no other genre can speak to the reader’s interest like nonfiction.” He’s right, and the research agrees with him. We are a nation of nonfiction readers, since no other genre can offer such a specific slice of we want to read. If you like bugs, there’s a book for it, and if you like a specific bug, like the Asian long-horned beetle, then you can read plenty about it. We all have specific interests that only nonfiction can satisfy. Whether we need to read it–my wife is reading a book about two-year olds–or if we just want to read it, nonfiction plays a big role in our development as readers.
This week’s book, Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, is certainly for history buffs, but can also interest even those who prefer to read their romance novels in a hot bath with candles everywhere (note: I’ve only seen this on TV). Sheinkin does a great job of weaving narrative with description, detailing how the atomic bomb works without intimidating his readers, and puts a good story together about an important part of our history in way that would make anyone enjoy learning about history.
I think what Bomb does for adolescents is something that history textbooks need to pay more attention to. If I had access in high school to books that told me about history as this one does, I might have had a different career path. But instead, I was forced to read a textbook that maybe spent a paragraph or two on the atomic bomb, which was structured just like every other paragraph in the textbook: topic sentence, example, detail, detail, detail, restatement of topic. No stories, just drab exposition attempting to give me our past, our culture–and others–in a structure that is so disconnected from how it happened that it is no wonder only a small portion of the population enjoys reading about history.
While I didn’t fall in love with history sooner, I was lucky enough to register for Dr. Irsfleld’s Vietnam War Literature class in college. We read novels about the Vietnam War that were written from soldiers from each section of the military, and even some that were written by Viet Cong soldiers. I read everything I could get my hands on that pertained to the Vietnam War during that semester, and today I still can’t pass up a documentary, article, or book that covers this particular time in our history. And it didn’t stop there. I read novels about other wars, too, such as WWI and WWII. Dr. Abrahamson used to say that the only true history book is a biography, so I started reading biographies of famous Americans from the Revolutionary War. What they all have in common, other than the history part, is that they all tell a story. They don’t present the facts in a cold, I-have-to-read-this-because-it’s-important way; instead, they tell an intriguing story.
And isn’t that really what history is? One long intriguing story? The power of narrative is well documented with regard to learning and memory. It would be nice if our curriculum would reflect this.
So what’s your story with nonfiction? If you don’t really have one, then talk about what you liked about this week’s reading.