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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

A Book, A Book, My Kingdom For a Book

What I Learn From My Mail

I got an email the other day from Will Fitzhugh, who is the founder of the Concord Review. That is a journal that reviews, evaluates, and publishes the best high school research papers. He pointed out something to me that puts this whole content/nonfiction issue in another light: high school students almost never read nonfiction books. They may read textbooks that have bits of prose in them, they may read excerpts and handouts, they may be assigned full chapters. But they do not have the experience of following an author’s entire argument, his or her narrative, from beginning to end. Will has been trying to get funding for a study to test this contention, but no one seems interested. They are so sure it is true, they don’t want to spend money on proving the obvious.

Well folks, if this is an obvious truth, the obvious question is why we are not talking about it. It is one thing to be upset that content is being cut out of the elementary school years, but replacing nonfiction books with nonfiction bites in high school is, well, criminal. It deprives young people of access to the way a historian thinks, argues, writes, develops his work. Yes textbooks analyze passages and give historiographical commentary — in fact some are very good at that. But that dissection is not at all the same as the sensual pleasure of sinking into a book.

To be clear, I am not merely talking about storytelling — the historian who catches you up with well-wrought scenes and vivid dramatic action. I find a sensual pleasure in being carried along in an argument, a sequence of logic, a "take," a point of view. If high school students never get to go on a ride with a historian as he or she makes sense of the past, how can they ever know how to do it themselves?

Thanks, Will, for pointing this out — and folks, is he right?


  1. Jennifer Macko says:

    I never made this realization before but I agree with his point. I was one of those people who was never trained to read non-fiction. I am use to the lure of fictionalized works and their dramatic and emotional appeal. I tend to find nonfiction dry and hard to work through.

    But, as a homeschooler, I try very hard not to let my habits and interests dictate the content of my children’s education; therefore, this post served to remind me that I need to add some other veggies to our reading salad. I want my kids to get use to eating what is good for them so that they develop a taste for it early on. So today’s I am going to look through our library and pick out a few nonfiction books to read with the girls.

  2. Marc Aronson says:


    Speaking as a nonfiction lover, I really don’t see it as a dutiful veggie, I just find it the most thrilling reading — because it explains the world to me. What could possibly be more interesting?

  3. Mary Ann says:

    I have spent years advocating for the inclusion of non-fiction books in both our high school science and social science curriculum. We have added an extra credit assignment in Physics and one of the Bio teachers recommends books – there are amazing Science books out there – but that as as far as I have gotten with the Sci. dept. We have a relationship/grant with the Gilder Lehrman foundation and the US History classes are now adding more non fiction books beyond the textbook. For example this year they read The Jungle and then compared it w/ Fast Food Nation. I just wish it was more. I’d throw the textbooks out if I could.

  4. Mom to Teens says:

    I am a children’s nonfiction writer, so my kids (now mid-late teens) are steeped in nf, and have been since they were wee tykes. More than 95% of what these voracious readers read is fiction, but when their interests drive them to pick up nf, they know how to read it, and in fact, practically inhale it cover-to-cover and then rehash it for days at the supper table with the rest of the family. Yes, our supper table is a very interesting place. :^)

    As for reading more nf in high school, I would hazard a guess that the main reason this hasn’t happened is time. Watching my two kids in 11th grade last year, I was astounded by the amount of homework they had every night, including weekends. (If adults brought this much work home from the office every night over the same period of time, they’d be considered workoholics and we would be concerned about their psychological health because their lives lack balance.) Even if you replace textbooks–of which I’m not a big fan, but they get the content job done…and, hmm…perhaps “process” and “skill” need more focus, instead?–with other nonfiction, it would mean a whole lot more reading to get the full meal deal, and as much as I’d love to see that happen, I’m afraid the extra workload wouldn’t be a tradeoff I’d like to see…unless, of course, homework pressure could be relieved in some other area, but I doubt the math or English folks would see that as a viable option.

  5. Swan song