How do we read, and how should we review K-12 nonfiction? This question came up as I was riding with Jonathan Hunt (co-author with Nina Lindsay of the Heavy Medal blog); Sue Bartle, the school library system director at New York’s Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES; and Steve Delvecchio, Regional Manager at the Seattle Public Library, who played key role in assembling the Common Core’s Appendix B. We had the good fortune of meeting up with Jonathan because Sue, Steve, and I–along with a local elementary school principal–were speaking at the Educational Book and Media Association (EBMA) annual conference in San Diego. I will write more about the conference in my next post, but briefly, EBMA is the association of trade book publishers and wholesalers that has an interest in selling to the school market. Jonathan drove us all to Liberty Station, a San Diego army barracks transformed into a retail complex that features a very nice restaurant and Yellow Book Road, a wonderful children’s bookstore. Naturally, we got talking about reading and reviewing.
How do different readers approach nonfiction? That is, what are their expectations? What engages them? What trips them up? This is especially important because you, dear audience, read and write reviews of nonfiction and make purchasing decisions based on those judgments. Some people have a checklist: Is the book accurate? Are there any errors? Is it biased? Is it culturally sensitive? Does it have back matter? Source notes? Are the illustrations clear, relevant, and engaging? Is it suited in subject, style, and format to its intended audience? The implicit idea is that nonfiction needs to be flawless–because it aims to be a pure mirror or lens. The purpose of the book is to provide a conduit to information outside of the book, and any blemish or scratch in the book so blurs that clear passage that the book is significantly marred. The book itself almost does not matter since its goal is to pass along information.
There are others, though, who read nonfiction for the experience, for the perspective–the thrilling ride into the past or out into deep space. Those readers do not expect a nonfiction book to be perfect, but rather an enjoyable venture, a dive into a different era, discipline, or an author’s thought process. Those readers expect to compare and contrast books and outlooks. They do not fall afoul of the old fear that it may be the only book children ever read on the topic, or the related shibboleth that kids believe everything they read, and so we cannot risk giving them anything that is speculative or questions accepted theory. They recognize that we are awash with information and look to nonfiction to explore, to model, to argue, and to engage.
These nonfiction readers consume it the way fiction lovers read fiction–they can’t wait to get the next book by a favorite author or on a favorite topic. Sure, they have preferences. We all know fiction fans can wax eloquent on the shades of one author’s fantasy cycle or another writer’s opus of young adult romance titles. Similarly nonfiction aficionados, like sommeliers, will muse on the differences of tone, balance, depth, and richness within an author’s oeuvre. But such readers come to what they love with curiosity rather than with a checklist. What did the author do this time? Where will the new book take us? How does it fit with, enhance, or even upend our understanding of other narratives and interpretations?
For example, if your library has a 2013 book on world records it is doubtless battered and worn from so many readings. And soon enough you will buy the 2014 edition in which some of the records will have been superseded. Of course, some readers will be eager to get that new information to stump their friends and show off their knowledge. But the pleasure fans of world records have in reading comes from the look, format, and style of the books. And the fact that the 2013 info is now dated does not make the book any less pleasurable. Accuracy does not trump enjoyment. Just the opposite, these readers will spend hours with the old edition, then eagerly update it with the new. Pleasure comes first, enhanced by further research and greater accuracy. That is how a nonfiction fan reads–enjoying the time s/he gets to spend in a universe of knowledge and information, recognizing all the while that there are, or soon will be, more sources that add to, question, or overturn what s/he has read so far.
What would a nonfiction review written by a nonfiction fan look like? After all, if a book has what the Brits call a “howler”–wrong date, missed fact, poorly researched statement, implausible theory, or a one-sided argument that neglects other perspectives–surely a reviewer needs to point that out. But should a blemish necessarily negate otherwise sound scholarship, originality, or an author’s sensitivity to cultural differences and biases? Shouldn’t the reviewer engage with what a book is aiming to do and how it does or does not accomplish that–recognizing all the while that another version of a book on the same subject might go about that it differently? Dr. Betty Carter has long said we need to let the book teach us how to read it–we need to understand what it aims to do, and evaluate it in those terms first, rather than pouring the book into our preset grid of acceptable and unacceptable.
We may decide that the aim of the book was misguided. We may determine that the book fails to achieve what it sets out to do. We should never hold back from being critics. But those who love nonfiction are more likely to read with the book than against it. While those who see nonfiction as a necessary evil, a tool for information transfer, are more likely to focus on blemishes and gaffes. At least that is where our conversation in the car took me. What do you think?