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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Truth, Interpretation, and the Goals of Nonfiction

What Are We Doing Calling Our Writing Nonfiction If We Know It is Not the Full Truth?

I’ve been thinking about that issue of interpretation and truth, and then a couple of new adult books helped me to clarify what I am trying to say. Wendy Doniger is an extremely accomplished scholar of both the language of Sanskrit and religion in India. Her new book is called The Hindus: An Alternative History and early on she explains her aims: "there is another story to be told here: how we know what we know, what we used to believe, why we believe what we believe now….Many crucial questions remain unanswered, and I hope that this book will inspire some readers to go back to the sources and decide for themselves whether or not they agree with me." I have written very similar notes in books for young readers. So what exactly are we saying?

We are saying that history is, most often, not about arriving at a clear and final answer. History does answer to standards of scholarship — you cannot claim what you know to be false, you cannot ignore a counter argument or inconvenient fact, you must account for contrary views. But history is an incomplete best shot taken by fallible humans based on whatever fragments of knowledge they happen to have at the time (filtered through the beliefs and attitudes of the time). History is always a process of knowing.

Now there is a special challenge with young people. We have to train them in scholarship — teach them how to separate fact and opinion, how to be creatively suspicious, how to dig deeper, how to find earlier ideas so you don’t think you are inventing the new when you are merely repeating the known. We have to do that, while giving them a basic orientation in information so they know what it is they are investigating. But while we do we are also teaching them to re-view, to see again, see anew, see afresh, see with the engaged eyes of their own time, to give us a new history, a new past.

This came home to mere forcefully when I read a review of Cathy Gere, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, — a book that, despite its academic sounding title, I am eager to read. That is because when I was in middle school, I loved Gods, Graves and Scholars And this book shows that Sir Arthur Evans, one of those scholars — in fact my favorite because he investigated Crete — invented a good deal of the history he apparently discovered. Gere’s book reverses what I was sure I knew. And surely when my kids grow up some book will reverse hers. History is that process of discovery and re-discovery. 

I am eager to show how interpret material in the books I write for young people because I want them to begin to explore their own interpretations. I give own best partial truth, so they are encouraged to look for another part — even if only by challenging mine.


  1. Susan Campbell Bartoletti says:


    Yesterday, as I stood in a Tennessee museum bookstore, I overheard a conversation between a father and daughter (about age 12, I’d say). He pointed to a book about George Washington and told her, “Washington never won a battle, until he got some generals that worked.”

    Another woman told her friend, who was holding a book about the Civil War, written from a Northern point of view. “You don’t need that book. The Southern point of view is the only view that matters.”

    These conversations made me think about your nonfiction blog, and the questions you’ve raised about truth and the necessity of considering conflicting points of view.

    I found myself buying a book by an author with a point of view on a subject that I completely disagree with, and with my pencil, arguing with him and challenging him in the margins of his book, all the flight home.

    It was more entertaining than a crossword puzzle.

    But I also learned something, and returned to my present position more fully informed — and with some of the author’s facts to look up for myself and with some questions about my own position.


  2. Susan:

    I love the image of you on the plane fuming and annotating — and learning. To me that is the ideal state for engaging with the past — fussing, fighting, thinking, turning information over this way and that.