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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

holiday grab bag

This and That During an Off Week

I went to a high school in Merick Long Island last week to do an unusual school visit. With the vacation approaching, the school gave me two hours with a group of tenth graders, and another two with AP US History kids. Both classes went two solid hours without a single break, and the kids were great. I’ve mentioned here that my wife and I are writing a book on sugar, and that gave me the focus for the first presentation. But for the second I brought in some research that is very new. This was that link of the Monroe Doctrine with the revolutions going on around the world, and the similar attention to those same events in India at the time. I have to say I was bowled over by the students. Not only did some of them come prepared with astute questions on my research, but others had done their own original research in primary sources — letters that were part of the background to the Monroe Doctrice — that challenged the ideas I was presenting.

Experiences like this are a reminder, if one is needed, that bright high school students are ready for college level work — that means college level research, thinking, debate, and engagement with ideas. So we need to produce books that meet these young people on their level. Sure they can and do read college and adult texts. But there is no reason why we should not also be creating books for them in children’s and YA divisions. I really feel that the bias in reviewing is towards younger books, and books aimed at middling or poor students. But why, shouldn’t we want to create books for the best readers, the ones most likely to get a great deal out of the books? 

While continuing to read The Canon, and Jeannine is right that it has some wonderful nuggets and interviews, I am also reading Clive James, Cultural Amnesia — a series of portrait essays of key figures in cultural and intellectual history, which lead him to explore several themes of interest. The two books are direct opposites in style — she is all obvious eagerness to be liked, he is ready to do combat with received opinion, display his learning and wit, and yet assure us of his unassuming regular-guyness. They are both a bit much, but perhaps a perfect end to the year — she offers science, he reviews culture — the whole world on my bedside table. Perhaps next year I’ll find a book which is both rich in content and hits the right tone in its style. If so, I’ll tell you. 

And, finally, on a personal level, Marina and I are — by coincidence — at the exact same point in books we are writing — finishing up what we believe are last revisions, moving bits around, thinking that we finally have the arcs just right. So we keep passing manuscripts back and forth, marking up paragraphs — hoping I suppose that in giving the other just the right last fix our own will fall into shape. It is all very appropriate for late December — especially if we are right and both do finally finish the books this year.