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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Active and Passive

Reading Styles

I hope all of you are following the comments that have come in on the various history/fiction posts — from authors, from Betty, from Monica, from Becky. In particular, the most recent Betty/Monica exchange leads me to a crucial issue. So far my focus has been on fact and imagination, on what is called historicity (and we might mangle as historicalness) and how that fits, or does not fit, with entering the past, inhabitating the past — whether as a historian, an author, or a reader. But Monica and Betty bring up a great point — aesthetic reading as one style of engagement, critical thinking as another.

But first, what is "aesthetic reading"? In one way, you might say, it is passive, appreciative — you the reader invite the author to take you somewhere, to please you, move you, entrance you. You show up at the book, and expect to be taken for a ride — with the author’s wit, charm, depth, mastery of craft, sensitivity to character, insight into situations being the motors that will carry you along. And yet it is not entirely that. One of the great steps forward in YA fiction in the past decade has been the greater use of the unreliable narrator and the multivoice novel. In other words, books that invite the reader not to trust the text, but to look around, behind, within it. Aesthetic reading, then, is not passive, it is active — looking for what is not said, what is implied, what is seen one way by one character, and a different way by another. 

I think that what Monica and Betty are pointing to is that good historical writing must involve both active and passive reading. And I don’t think we are as accustomed to using those YA English Major tools in nonfiction as we are in fiction. It is very rare to have nonfiction from multiple POVs (George Vs. George comes to mind; or Bull Run, though that is precisely historical fiction). We are invited always to trust the voice of nonfiction, never to see the author as having his or her own angle, own emotions, own point of view. 

Monica and Betty are raising the red flag of caution — do not assume the reader needs to enter a book passively, to be seduced into the text. A reader can also be challenged, asked to enter actively, swinging the sword of questions, doubts, suspicion. Do you need the spoonful of aesthetic sugar to make the medicine of history go down?

What do you all think? (Note I will be at Fisk University’s Race Relations Institute this Friday for a panel so I may be delayed in my next blog.)


  1. Betty Carter says:

    I think your statement about active and passive reading, that “I don’t think we are as accustomed to using those YA English Major tools in nonfiction” is right on the money. When Louise Rosenblatt first started discussing efferent and aesthetic reading, she firmly believed (and did so throughout her career) that the former came from nonfiction and the latter through fiction. But, aesthetic responses can come through all kinds of nonfiction, even those accounts that aren’t written as story narratives. I see the sentence (and we can quibble about the number later) “six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust” and that one mathematical figure prompts an aesthetic, emotional response. I see kids who read books like the Guinness Book of World Records and again take that stance: What would it be like to have the longest fingernails in the world? Could you pick your nose? Even photographs bring emotional responses; think of the jackets of Seymour Simon’s Snakes or Nic Bishop’s Spiders. And one of the more common examples of aesthetic reading is that of cookbooks. I remember my mother, who had major heart problems, reading cookbooks from New Orleans — all which started with “take a certain amount of lard.” I asked her why in the world she was reading such, she certainly couldn’t cook from it, and she said she was just imagining what it would taste like. And I do the same; I take a receipt and wonder if I should add more basil or use bread crumbs rather than flour, and I’m involved with aesthetic reading with little more than a list of instructions.

  2. Betty Carter says:

    Like Monica did earlier, I’m using two posts because of paragraphing. I think for some time nonfiction writers have been looking for active involvement from readers. Think of Seymour Simon’s early book, Animal Fact, Animal Fiction, or Patricia Lauber’s A Tree Is Nice. Both asked questions and expected the reader (or to be more accurate, probably the listener) to respond. And such is quite natural in storytime sessions. But these attempts at active reading are growing more sophisticated and being aimed at older youngsters. Jim Murphy’s book on the Alamo outlines the information we have (or don’t have or think we have) about the Alamo, how information has changed but the legends may have remained the same. And Peter Sis’s Tree of Life demands that the reader become Darwin — to see the world as did Darwin, even down to those minute illustrations of numbers of animals. Viki Cobb’s series (particularly the books on wind and water) create an entirely different reading experience. They state a concept, expect the child to interrupt the listening with an experiment that demonstrates that concept, and then pick back up with yet another concept and another experiment. What we have to learn to do is deal with these kinds of presentations in much the same way we had to learn to deal with unreliable narrators.