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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

How Did Bill Gates Get So Rich?

Knowers and Learners

I liked Betty’s post — aside from being pleased she came by to visit. I’ve been reading about Bill Gates for a biography I’m writing. One thing that you see over and over again in his early life, and Paul Allen’s, is that when they were teenagers, the gap between their skill and knowledge as programmers and the best in the country was not that great. They had a lot to learn, but endless energy, brains, and determination. So, soon enough, adults hired them to work on big projects. They were cheaper than adults, but good enough to not only do the work, but take on increasingly important tasts. In turn, the teenagers learned from adults while also gaining the knowledge, the confidence, that they could play in the computer world. As one of those supervising adults recalled, “we were treating high school students like real people.” 

Bill and Paul were creators in a community of creators, learners in a cell of learners. My point in talking about the new history, and the use of the internet, and trade books, is that, traditionally, excellence in nonfiction for younger readers has been associated with two things: authority and story telling. On the one hand, we commend authors for accuracy, and, on the other hand, for grabbing our attention. The ideal book, then, is both certifiably true and "I couldn’t put it down" reading. Great. But what we are seeing now is a time where knowledge is changing, growing, daily. And so what a book can also be is an exploration, not an ending, an essay — where the author tests ideas, moves into dangerous territory, examines the new — not a firm conclusion. In other words it can be a learner’s report from the front, to share with other learners.

I have no desire to blame teachers. But I do think that in a nation where two-thirds of high school graduates are not prepared for college level research, writing, or, especially, thinking, we all need to talk about what nonfiction books should be. What is excellence in that environment? Should books be simpler, more photo driven, more graphic novelesque. Some say that given where students actually are, we need to meet them or we lose them. I am in favor of much more experimentation with visuals in nonfiction. But to me that is only part of the answer. The other is to encourage everyone in the world of books, reading, education, and young people to reconsider what a book needs to do. I think if young people found nonfiction books as dynamic and risk-taking as, say, some of the political songs they listen to, they would be interested. Someone will probably write a novel around the Jena 6 but why not a nonfiction book? Three nooses on the cover.Would kids read that even if it was more angry then fair. I bet they would. Then, with their teachers, learning together they could parse out the facts of the case, or the Duke Lacrosse Case. Let the author speak his/her mind, and let the learning begin.


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    I’m going to continue to be a thorn in your side on this issue, Marc! One I feel as passionately about as you do yours. Teachers’ voices are too rarely heard in all the discussion about what is wrong with what they do. And so I do my best to provide one voice, at least. I’m a classroom teacher, for those reading this who don’t know me. I teach fourth grade and have done so for over thirty years.

    Way back in the 70s I wanted to be an illustrator. But because I wanted a steady source of income (and because I liked doing it), I became a teacher. Since then I’ve had a lot of experience both writing for teachers (books, articles, etc), teaching grad courses, and doing workshops and speeches for my peers, and being on the other side (listening to others talk to me about curriculum). (I also have hired mentored numerous new teachers at my school over the years in my role as a department chair.) What I’ve learned is that you will best win the hearts and minds of teachers if you can really show that you know where they are at. I’ve done some workshops on using primary sources in teaching. It has been great to have audiences of public school teachers who tell me they will take back some of the ideas and use them.

    There are wonderful books out there, but teachers need to see how they can be used in classrooms. And to my mind the best way they will see this is if someone else models for them the way to do it. I urge you and others to really get into classrooms and try out these books together with teachers and kids. See how they can be brought into the curriculum as it is today.

    There are wonderful places where people are working on Habits of Mind in public schools. Project Zero at Harvard, Debbie Meier, and others. I’ve just been working with the Chicago History Museum on a project using their resources.

    Clearly I feel as strongly about the work of teaching as you do about the books! I love the books and agree with you completely about creating books that are more interactive. Where perhaps we differ is that I think that books do not work in isolation in classrooms. That is, they need the passion and enthusiasm and skill of an adult to bring them what is in them to life.

  2. Monica Edinger says:

    I did have paragraphs in the proceeding, but I guess they didn’t take. (Just so you know my rant wasn’t meant to be without them:)

  3. Chris Barton says:

    Marc, obviously adult nonfiction embraces immediate topics such as the Jena 6 — Robert Draper’s “Dead Certain,” a biography of the sitting president, comes to mind — but nonfiction for young readers has lagged, except in extreme circumstances such as 9/11 books.

    Why do you think that is? A perceived smallness of the market? Wariness of drawing conclusions that won’t hold up over time (and the demands of the backlist)? Fears of alienating fringe groups who wield disproportionate power over state adoption of textbooks put out by the same publishers who might produce this sort of controversial, immediate nonfiction? Or something else?

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    The adult nonfiction world expects to seel books in bookstores — so controversy and media attention are seen as good things. The children’s publishers do not expect to sell in stores, and so want reliable, trustworthy, books that will appeal to institutions. My point is that we need to recognize point of view as, in fact, a form of reliability — you know where the author stands and can form your own view in reaction to that.

  5. i think that bill gates needed to stop being a greedy fagot and give money to the poor because i am tired of seeing those poor inasint ppl outside of nyc and nj lying on the ground begging for food and its not only nj and nyc its all over the world bill gates give money to the poor stop bitching about it you asshole