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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Facts, Stories, Ideas

Roxanne’s comment on facts derserves more comment than I could fit into the comment box, so here goes.

Betty Carter tells a marvelous story of seeing boys huddled over a book in the library. She was worred — what salacious material had they found? But, no, nothing to be worried about. They were staring at one page of the Book of World Records — the man with the world’s longest fingernails. Why? What was so interesting? One boy explained to Betty: "I wondered how he picked his nose." Her astute conclusion is that presented with pure fact, the reader invents his own compelling story. A story about the exertions of the man with the world’s longest fingernails would be less interesting that pure facts about him. which readers then used to create stories in their own minds. A more prosaic example of this is a baseball card. Kids read them for the stats. A longer card with stories about the player would be less appealing. Think of the investor looking at stock market numbers crawling by on a screen. Each rise or fall in a stock he owns or is thinking of buying creates a storyline which has strong emotions such as greed and fear. Or to shift the focus, a cookbook. I suspect that people who enjoy reading cookbooks would get less pleasure out of them if they were filled with stories. They want to imagine the dish purely by seeing the ingredients and the steps involved in using them.

So I agree that there is a great deal of story in pure fact. I have also already written an article for SLJ about the other aspect of Laura Amy Schlitz’s dichotomy of story and fact: ideas, thinking, are what really makes meaning. Story can stir us, but testable ideas lead to science, medicine, knowledge. But I think we nonfiction fans are in an awkward position. She is a fine writer and gave a knockout speech. The more we dwell on the part that upset us, the more we can seem like spoilsports. So I think we should see her comments as an opportunity. She spoke for a very significant membership in our world that does prefer fiction to nonfiction and is not afraid to say it — in fact sees that choice as a sign of sisterhood, membership in a shared community. And she articulated what many feel but may not have as clearly formulated: story engages us, while dry facts add extra bits — like sprinkles on an icecream come. If you look at Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! she does just that — sprinkles bits of nonfiction to help explain, or add insight or fun. For example "the kidneys of the boar would have been a real treat." It took real research to find that, and a good sense of kids to add it. She enjoys that extra punch the right fact can bring to a story. But story is her love.

The best way to see this moment is to thank her — precisely because she did so well her slip stood out, and gave all of us the chance to discuss head on attitudes that generally go unquestioned.


  1. COOL

  2. 60606060606060600606060609 says: