Nonfiction: The Great Equalizer

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 Weaponis 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.

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19 thoughts on “Nonfiction: The Great Equalizer

  1. I think because my love of reading grew from reading fiction, I was hesitant to pick up non-fiction. I’m not sure if other people have this experience, but I feel like many do. Non-fiction always seemed “too real”, which is ridiculous when I think about it because some of my favorite fiction stories are realistic fiction, but I digress. I did not begin to read non-fiction until this past summer and my only regret is that I wish I had sooner.

    My aunt, Julie, is an avid reader. We often send each other links to books over text, lend each other copies of our last favorites, and share books with each other via Nook. No one else in my family reads as widely as she does, so I have always been able to bond with her over our shared love of literature. Last summer, she went on a big non-fiction kick. Needing a break from the A Song of Fire and Ice series (aka the longest books I’ve ever read), I picked up several of her recommendations from the public library. I was hooked. It only took one non-fiction book to get me thoroughly interested. Julie suggested I read Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. I had watched John Green’s YouTube video about the book (worth a watch here: http://youtu.be/SllAhbkMCiY), so I knew I had to pick it up. It was, no exaggeration, a life-changing read and I immediately began passing it around to history teachers.

    For me, non-fiction books are long form This American Life, a favorite podcast of mine. People live amazing lives, do incredible things, and their stories are never heard. Non-fiction offers a way to see how nuanced and fascinating life is.

    I find the stories a pleasant break from my typical reading selections. It may be excessive to read into the timing as perfect, but it truly was. I got non-fiction books right when I needed them. If I had been suggested those books a year earlier, I may not have learned to love their type.

  2. I read non-fiction as voraciously as I do all other types of books. You can’t consider yourself “an avid reader” if you omit certain genres of books. It originally wasn’t my cup of tea (or I thought) because, like the kids in our classrooms, we hadn’t found a niche we liked.

    The more I read in the genre, the more tolerant I became of certain subjects I wasn’t very interested in, and then, gradually moved to a general state of enjoying everything.

    This is how I began being a dual-major as an undergrad in the history and english departments. As a student in both departments, I became interested in the obscure pieces of history- or the pieces that were given only a mention in a textbook.

    I also began to appreciate the language of non-fiction. I hated being treated like a total dummy when I was reading a book, and I also hated being bored to tears when certain texts were assigned.

    I was looking forward to reading this book because there doesnt seem to be a lot of non-fiction texts suitible for younger readers as a bridge between the teen years and jumping into giant tombs of history.

    HOWEVER, there was a lot of teeth-grinding from my History side as I read because of the portrayal of some of the scientists, events, and outcome of the creation and useage of the atomic bomb.

    I understand that its geared towards younger audiences but if they are going to pick up this book then they are at the age where they can understand that the world is not a happpy place and the reasons why people do things are not always what they seem.

    And…AND…from the English major part of me I was annoyed how wordy the whole thing was. There were HUGE sections that could have been omitted or shortened. When I looked at the dust jacket I was not suprised that the author started off as a textbook writer. The whole book reads like a section of a textbook that has been omitted from the final production.

    When I added the book to my Goodreads finished lists I scrolled down to the review section and was not suprised to find many people writing: This book blew (pun intended and not intended).

    I tend to agree.

  3. I tend to be more interested in nonfiction than fiction, to be honest. I find that knowing something actually happened to be much more interesting than something that was created from imagination. I enjoy reading memoirs, mostly. I’ve read several, but my favorite is “The Other Wes Moore” by Wes Moore. It’s about two boys with the same name, who grew up in similar situations, but took two different paths in life–one in prison, the other a successful business man (the latter is the author of this book). It’s a great story about how choices impact your future. In my opinion, I don’t think Moore’s memoir would be as inspirational if it were fiction.

    I’ll admit that I was not looking forward to reading Bomb, but I think that’s because I’m not interested in anything related to war or science. If it was a book on a topic I was more interested in I would have been more eager to read it. But, once I started reading Bomb, I actually started to enjoy it. My assumption that I wouldn’t like this book was wrong, it’s actually quite interesting. And because of this I agree with what you said about making history more interesting. Books like Bomb would be a nice supplement to whatever they are learning in Social Studies. Maybe SS & ELA teachers could get together and choose reading based on what they will be teaching… although I’m sure this must already happen in some schools.

  4. I have definitely not read as much non-fiction as I have fiction. However, I know that any knowledge that I possess about history (admittedly, not much) came from reading fiction. I learned about the Civil War from books like Gone With The Wind. When I was younger, I was obsessed with stories about pioneers moving west. I am pretty sure I was the only 8 year old with extensive background knowledge on this time in history. It has always been easier for me to learn about history through novels. I think Sheinken’s BOMB is a good example of how novels can be utilized to educate students on history and even science. I would imagine that reading BOMB would be much more enjoyable and easier than reading a textbook.
    Although BOMB was more enjoyable to read than a textbook, I did not find the prose to be especially eloquent. Even though I don’t mind reading non-fiction, I’ve never had the experience where I close the book and I am left awestruck. At times, I found this book to be almost awkward and choppy. I found myself wondering why certain sections were included and I did not feel that any one character was fully developed. Perhaps this goes back to this book maybe being more enjoyable for boys. There were simply too many characters and settings for me to truly enjoy the read. This is not to say that I do not think it would be excellent to give to a student.

  5. Nonfiction has always been more enjoyable for me to read than fiction. Its pleasurable because I know that the writing is true information. This week’s book however reminded me of sitting in History class in high school. History classes have always been extremely boring to me. The reading was always so dry, it couldn’t keep my attention. While I do enjoy nonfiction for the basic fact that it is true writing, Bomb was extremely boring. However, if I were to read this as a High School student I may prefer it over the textbook. Many times in school teachers do not go in depth in subject areas that may be interesting for students. This book would be a great supplement to the text book that every high school student hates. It gives great insight and would grab the reader’s attention for longer than 30 seconds. Students would be intrigued by the great information it provides. However, I am not a history person, so this book was not on the top of my list as a favorite for this semester. I do feel it would go great in a history classroom though.

  6. I don’t usually mind nonfiction books, although I cannot say that it is my favorite genre. If I have to read a historical book I prefer historical fiction because I think it tells a more personal story without sounding like a textbook. My favorite nonfiction book is *The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer*. I found the topic about a serial killer who is involved in mafia killings fascinating.

    To be honest, I did not like *Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal- the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon*. I do enjoy history books and if I ever had to choose another major in college I would have chosen history. Therefore, it wasn’t the content of the book that I had a problem with- it was the way the story was told. It reminded me of our class notes on the books boys prefer compared to girls, with settings all over the world and multiple characters. I found myself trying to follow one character throughout the novel, but there really was no protagonist. Additionally, all of the side characters that the author threw in seemed arbitrary to the true story. Every character was given a first and last name and a physical description. I can appreciate what the author was trying to do- make each character “come to life” by providing a brief physical and sometimes personality description. However, I would have preferred if the author had only done this for the most important people in the novel. Not only did it make the book harder to follow, it made me feel like I was reading a textbook in which you need to memorize every person to know what is going on.

    However, I did appreciate the scientific descriptions given throughout the novel. As a nonscientific person myself, I had no idea how the atomic bomb works or what fission even was. I think Sheinkin does an excellent job of describing very complex scientific concepts in the simplest way possible so that the readers are able to follow along. I also liked the diagrams that were placed into the book to make it even more understandable, such as he diagram in the middle of page 99. Additionally, I liked how the book did not just focus on the scientists and engineers involved in actually building the bomb. The parts about the spies, such as Harry Gold, were more interesting to me than the description of things going on at Los Alamos.

  7. Nonfiction reading materials have always sparked more interest for me than fiction. I enjoy learning facts/data that come from actual events in time. I also enjoy learning by hearing stories told from others. I believe this is why i gained an interest for reading the newspaper or biographies of my favorite sports heroes at a young age. I often relate my reading interests to my movie interests. I am much more engaged in a movie that’s based on a true story instead of a movie with a fictional plot. I often find myself struggling with fictional materials when I have to use my imagination and paint my own picture.

    I recall growing up as an adolescent and the reading material i was most passionate about is history. This continued during my undergraduate education when i was very engaged with an American history class. I struggled with fictional YA literature. This class has caused me to read more fictional material than I have in the past, but my passion is with nonfictional facts and information.

  8. My experience with nonfiction is not very impressive. Occasionally I read nonfiction, but I mostly find solace in fiction novels. The only times I can remember of picking up nonfictions works are when I need motivation. Sure I read nonfiction, if it was required of me in school, but I hardly ever choose it for myself. I choose fiction because it gives me the taste of the life I’m looking for. It has elements ordinary life lacks. It provides the options of anything one desires, whereas nonfiction provides limited accounts of daily life events that many people have experienced.

    Nonfiction does not engage my imagination as much as fiction works do, which makes fiction more desirable to me. Fiction ignites my imagination, which causes me to day dream, and eventually, plan. I love day dreaming about what exciting things can happen in my life, which nonfiction does not afford me the option of doing. Nonfiction, in my opinion, presents a sad picture of reality, while fiction allows anything imaginable to happen.

    I find my emotions to be more stimulated while reading fiction, which is another factor that pulls me in. While it can be said many go to nonfiction when reading, I go to nonfiction only when I need to. If I want to completely lose myself while reading, I turn to fiction. Fiction allows me to forget my life, enter the one I am reading, and reap the rewards of events I will never see happen in my life. I think since nonfiction is seen as what can happen, it shows reality all too often. When I read for pleasure, I want to escape reality, and enter a world of happiness, love, and happy endings. We all know reality does not always come with happy endings, but the fiction novels I read do. If by some chance I pick a fiction work that does not have a happy ending, I chose it because some other factor struck me as engaging.

    It could very well be that I have not found a nonfiction subject I enjoy yet. Maybe one day I will stumble across a nonfiction topic I enjoy, and want to read on more than a “I need motivation, so I will get a nonfiction motivational work” occasion. I hope that day comes because I don’t like writing off genres of literature, but as of now, fiction is my personal reading sanctuary.

  9. I am really thankful that Bomb was on the reading list for this course. I’ve always been interested in history; back in high school, it was the only other class that I never dreaded going to. I loved learning about the culture and happenings of times long gone, and even times not-so-long-gone. My brother is constantly telling me that I’m far too nostalgic for my age, and while I definitely agree with him, I think this has given me a sincere appreciation of everything historical. But until reading Bomb, I don’t think I ever realized how much I liked history. My pleasure-reading has always been fiction, and my history teachers had never assigned anything other than textbooks. This was the historical narrative I have read, and I have to say, compared to books like this, textbooks are worthless. I liked reading Sheinkin’s short biography on the book’s jacket, in which he refers to his former life of textbook writing as a life of crime. While I think those massive textbooks are important resources for large overviews, books like this are definitely more engaging and informative than those volumes could hope to be.
    My dad has never been a big TV guy, but growing up, it was pretty common for him to have the History channel on. And it was the pre-junkyard-digging-show History Channel, so I got a lot of exposure to deep-voiced narrators describing the revolutionary war. Even though I would hastily change the channel to one cartoon or another after he left the room, I do remember enjoying these documentaries, and I’m sure that influenced my openness to reading this sort of text.
    When I was talking to my friend about this book, I told that it was completely changing my perspective on the atomic bomb. Like the original post says, there was a couple paragraph’s about it, and that was it. I never stopped to consider all of the science leading up to it, and all of the politics and espionage involved. I never even knew that other countries were trying to build the same weapon at the same time.
    The author skillfully put complex ideas in comprehensible terms, and kept engaged with descriptions that bordered on an action-movie. I have enjoyed all of the historic fiction that I’ve read, but after reading Bomb, I definitely see more nonfiction in my future. I know that we’re all future English teachers, but I hope that I can convince some of my future-peers in the history department to fill their own classroom library with books like this, and perhaps integrate their own novel groups into their lesson plans. I hope that my students will be reading nonfiction in my classroom, as well.

  10. I guess I fall in to the big category of people who like non-fiction books.
    However, I was very skeptical of this book when I discovered it was a history lesson. Like Dr. McConn, I did not enjoy history in the least due to the BORING textbooks. I really think the way we teach history does a disservice to what actually happened. Memorizing dates doesn’t help students understand the gravity of an event.
    Anyway, I think this book does a great job at laying out the detailed events leading up to the creation of the atomic bomb in a creative, exciting way. It made me excited at least. Never having read about this event in detail, I felt like I was being let in on a big secret. Maybe that’s the key for writing about history well.
    I was particularly intrigued by the events in the Norwegian mountains when men were sent to bomb Vermork, the German’s heavy water plant. So intrigued, in fact, that I googled if anyone ever made a movie on this event because, let’s face it, it was a pretty sick mission. The only one ever made was made in 1965 – The Heroes of Telemark. I ordered the DVD on Amazon and spent the rest of the afternoon watching YouTube videos of the Trinity site, the aftermath of Hiroshima and so on.
    The book also struck up philosophical conversation between my husband and I. We discussed the president’s decision to drop the bomb, the insane amount of science behind such destruction, the power America’s army has – stuff like that.
    I found reading this book to be an emotional experience. Maybe because it was so dense – or maybe because I watched the YouTube videos in conjunction – I was drained when I put it down. But I’m thankful literature like this exists because it connects us with the world in a way that a stuffy text book can’t.

  11. Bomb Blog:
    I really enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction however I think I lean more towards nonfiction because of my love for history! I really felt the book “Bomb” written by Sheinkin was so intriguing, it’s no wonder it flaunts a “Newberry Honors” award. This nonfiction piece kept my interest from beginning to end. I loved the history, politics, mystery, espionage, and the masterminds behind its creation of such a powerful and deadly weapon. My favorite part of this book was “Operation Gunnerside” the attack of Hitler’s heavy water plant. I didn’t realize there was a race amongst other countries to build the bomb first or how much importance went in to building such a device. I have to say I admire the hard work these scientist’s put into building this weapon. I think this would be an interesting read for a History class as well as an English class! I really liked how this book taught me our history and I actually enjoyed reading this. It shows us that both reading and learning doesn’t have to be such a daunting task. It can be quite enjoyable I only hope that my future students will find these books as interesting as I have.

  12. I’ve never been a history or non-fiction person. My mentality has always been “I live real life, why would I want to read about it?” Obviously not the most open-minded view of non-fiction, but I felt as tho the escape I crave through reading could not be achieved through this genre. Over the years I have been proved wrong. I have read multiple biography and non-fictions thanks to various English electives that have easily captivated my interest. Bomb was no exception. This is the book I was looking forward to reading the least. History is perhaps one of my least favorite subjects, because of the textbook method that has been mentioned in various posts. Personal stories on historical events have always intrigued me, however, the fact grinding of history courses had turned me off of the subject completely. This book read slower for me than the others, but I still had the desire to stick with the story out of curiosity. Bomb discusses a time period which we have all been taught on numerous occasions but the personal stories paired with the science and strategy behind it makes it the most pleasant presentation of the information. I believe that students should be exposed to non-fiction works such as these, even though most history departments are not making the efforts to do so. By English teachers having this book as part of their classroom library, they open up the exploration of history for students, such as myself, who believe they are not interested in the topic while getting students to read. Had works like these been introduced to me in high school I may have given non-fiction and historical literature a chance sooner.

  13. I’ve never loved nonfiction nearly as much as I love fiction. I can’t say that I wholly agree that, “No other genre can speak to the reader’s interest like nonfiction.” I’ve always been a lover of lies. Oscar Wilde’s philosophy in, The Decay of Lying, “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art,” is what I always agreed with. A figment of the imagination can become a creation of beauty, a miracle of sorts.

    So, if I were to enjoy Realism, it would be accompanied by beautiful lies. I love historical fiction. It gives us a reason to care about statistics. I’ve read several fictional, war journals and depictions of war that provide a tiny piece of a grand puzzle of a complicated mess, but I’m able to understand what those wars might have been like through the eyes of fictional characters I’ve grown to love and care for.

    I’ve learned more from those novels than I ever did in history class, which is why I so appreciate, Bomb: The Race to Build – and – Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. Steve Sheinkin writes nonfiction the way historical fiction reads. We have the facts and the figures, but we also get to understand how the figures involved thought and felt. It gives us a human connection to a part of our history I knew so little about before I read this novel.

  14. Although non-fiction is not my first choice, I do enjoy reading it, especially if the writer or the topic is something that I can connect to. One of my absolute favorite non-fiction books is Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. I decided to read the book because I could connect to the subject matter- Cheryl lost her mom, and in a way, I felt I had lost mine. I also am not a very adventurous person, so I was incredibly intrigued to read about her adventure. I found myself annotating and highlighting this book that I was reading for pleasure, which is sort of funny, but there were so many things that Cheryl said about loss and her mother that I was never able to quite put into words myself. I felt like the words that I could not put on paper were right there in front of me, and I didn’t feel so alone.

    The other experiences that I have with non-fiction are books about the Holocaust that I read in Dr. Burch’s classes in my undergraduate career. Although there was a lot of fiction in his curriculum, a lot of the facts and stories were real, and we did read some autobiographies and short stories of people’s real experiences. I cannot quite remember the names of the books, but I should really look them up, because I would love to reread them. I think that books that share true accounts of history are much more engaging than a textbook, and adds a level of empathy that is needed when it comes to history. We can say things like “Never forget” when it comes to a tragedy like the holocaust or 9/11, but once the people who were involved pass on and the world continues to spin, it’s going to take more than a textbook to prevent history from repeating itself.

  15. My first look into non-fiction came in the fourth grade. I had a series of projects that could only be accomplished through reading non-fiction. My first book was an autobiography on Hans Christen Anderson, I believe that’d fall into the category, unless autobiographies are a completely separate type of book. I then had to write a story as if I were him and lived his life. It was an interesting project and it was a long time ago so i’m not quite sure if I liked it or not, but I can say to this day I find reading about people interesting, as long as it’s someone I can tolerate actually reading about. Following this project later in the year was another that required some nonfiction reading, I read a book about dogs and training them, this I don’t remember liking so much; it was dull and boring and to be honest I probably could only handle skimming it. After that I didn’t get too much exposure to nonfiction until middle school when my mom made me read The Diary of Anne Frank, which was such a compelling story! While back then I found it a little long to read such a long book I’m sure I was glad I finished the whole thing because I still enjoy it today. I think had I been exposed to more novels like Bomb I would maybe like history, or science, or math more, or at the very least find them more interesting.

    Then finally, in high school during my last semester English elective course my student teacher, Mr. Tilton (yeah, I remember), introduced the class novel In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and I was taken aback with how much I enjoyed this novel. As he and my actual class teacher, Mrs. Cooley came around to check our annotations and see that we were reading I saw everyone getting points taken off and pages as white and bare and uncrinkled as when they first got the book. Then they got to me, a different color highlighter for different things, blue for character descriptions, orange for important themes, pink for important things about plot and so forth and my book not even being able to stay flat closed because of how much I tore the pages back reading them. Had other kids in my class had better exposure maybe they would’ve enjoyed it more. I think I just looked past the nonfiction aspect and read it as a story, which it was anyway, and I became more open minded to non fiction.

    Sometimes I read nonfiction and didn’t even realize it, my mom handed me a book (I forget what it was called) and it was all about how this guy died for a couple minutes and actually saw “the light” and his experiences. Apparently it was a true story and I was reading nonfiction the whole time. While I admit nonfiction hasn’t been in my collection lately I wouldn’t say I hate it at all, and if anyone has any suggestions feel free to comment and let me know! 🙂

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