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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


How Nonfiction Got Its Name

How did nonfiction get its name, oh best beloved, let me tell you the tale. There was a wise old owl named Dewy, and he found that all the animals in the jungle, and all of the sprites and spirits and djins that hovered in the air just above the leaves and grasses, were confused. No one know who was who or where to find anyone else. So Dewey split the world in two: all creatures that walk on the earth, he decreed, all beings that I can see or can be seen, or that have been seen by any wise owls anywhere, stand here. All creatures which hover in the air, just at the edge of sight, filling the mind, the heart, the imagination, but never actually touching the soil — move there. We will call all of those shimmering almost-real beings "fiction" and then we will write all their names down, and list them from first to last; then all that slithers, and crawls, and sims, and touches the earth and I can see or can be seen, or that have been seen by any wise owl anywhere, will be called nonfiction. But because nonfiction is about the world we can touch, we won’t list it by names, but by countries of the world.

Which brings me, oh best beloved, to my problem. The most interesting history, these days, is about connection. It is not defined by nation — it is not about how one nation, or people, or culture, came to be, but, precisely, about exchange; not about borders, but about transmission. You all surely know this better than I do, but is there a Dewey classification for international exchange — Silk Route — not as a subject about Asia, but about Asia, Central Asia, Turkey, the Middle East, Italy, the West exchanging ideas, people, information; for slavery not as about Africa, or the New World, or Europe, but about the international world (including India, Mexico, Boligiva, the Philippines) involved in the African slave trade; about the Muslim influence on Medieval Europe, not as about Islam, or the Crusades, or the West, but the exchange of ideas and technologies as they influenced both — and Jewish history as well?

If there is not a classification for this, how about displays — a set of books about a sequence of peoples and cultures with a common thread of exchange, so you can read from one to the next to the next, following the international spread of civilization: a bridge of books, linking across from one part of the world, one moment in history, to another.