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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

As Rome Turns

If Can Find the August 8 Issue of the TLS, Turn to Page 14

There is a "Commentary" by Tom Holland — an expert on the Roman Empire — on a new show about Rome in the age of Hadrian, now at the British Museum. Holland loves the show, and for reasons that relate directly to this blog. As he explains, "there can never be a final history of Hadrian. New finds will always be made….Dead  he may be, and the Empire he ruled as well, but the study of ancient Rome, and the ways in which we interpret it, refuse to stand still."

I suspect that the British are particularly alert to how history changes: they were once the home of the world-dominating empire — an empire that instilled in its subjects a very clear narrative of past and present. But their empire is gone — and thus their sense of the past necessarily had to change. They are very clear about how what once seemed solid and self evident may soon crumble and look false, bloated, even self-deluding. Holland hints at that in his piece — a good part of what he likes about the Hardian show is that while it is about Rome and our changing sense of what it was, housed in the British Museum it is, simultansouly a commentary on Engldn. As he says, "if it is true…that Hadrian and his age hold up a mirror to ourselves, then it is the great achievement of this exhibition to remind us that the reflections we catch there have been, at least in part, created by ourselves."

So here again is the challenge of creating nonfiction for young people — it is about us (authors), about the our subjects (history, science, biology….) and it is about them, our readers. It is all of those things simultaneously. Susan Kucklin, in writing about murderers on death row needed to question herself — so that she could answer to her readers. Susanne, writing about Catlin’s paintings of Indians, had to wrestle out her views of his views of his subjects. Vicki, in inviting readers to film themselves makes their experiences part of her book. Nonfiction, in other words, is about motion, interaction, in which all parties are present. It is not a lecture from a knowing adult to a blank child, it is one thinking person exchanging what he has filtered through his training, knowledge, personality, emotions with thinking young people, who will, in turn, take it in through their training, knowledge, personality, and emotions. 

Thanks Tom Holland for putting this so well, makes me want to fly over and see the show.