I will be away again tomorrow — the National Archives and Records Administration library at College Park is proving to be such a treasure trove of materials that I cannot stay away. At present I am making my way through the thousands of photos in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI files — that itself is beyond fascinating, before I begin to look at text files. My sense is that the Hoover photos have not been carefully examined — outside of photo researchers plucking out familiar favorites such as the Biograph Theater where Dillinger was gunned down, or any of the posed I Am J. Edgar Hoover Top Cop images. In part that is because the overwhelming majority of the shots are staged moments where Hoover greets a contest winner, a scouting troop, a visiting dignitary. On the face it as boring and uninformative as can be. But as you review them year by year, era by era you do both see changes in the man and his guests and in America — in how we defined ourself. There is a great deal to be learned when, instead of hoping to find something unusual among the images, you study what those endless ranks of handshakes are saying. And then there are some very different shots as well — just such a pleasure to explore.
I mention this in part because it links to the March/April issue of the Horn Book, which is just out. The entire issue is devoted to “Fact, Fiction, and In Between” and is well worth your time. In the issue I make the argument that some of us are involved in a new kind of nonfiction for younger people. We do not see ourselves as translating adult discoveries to younger readers — or at least that is only part of how we see ourselves. We also see our role as seeking out and passing on new knowledge — ideas and, yes, speculations and opinions, that would be as new to adults as to their children. Thus the Hoover files — I am there to see what makes sense to me. I seek out academic experts to examine what I write — I realize I may be wrong. But I do hope to come to new conclusions in the book that may differ from what most adults think, believe, or have read. I am there to explore and thus to model to young people how they can do their own research, their own explorations, their own efforts to discover new knowledge.
The one problem with my piece in the HB is that while they selected some apt illustrations for the article, the credit lines are so far from the pictures that few readers will understand what they are seeing. It only goes to show how hard it is to get NF exactly right — there are so many moving parts. And that is yet another reason we all should be proud of the books we create. Learning new things, testing those insights, figuring out how best to express our thoughts to our readers, finding illustrations, placing them in the text, adding just the right captions — not to speak of getting the backmatter right — all of that is hard, and so satisfying when it all comes together. That is why it bugs me when a reviewer (or someone posting to a place like Goodreads where they need not be a trained reviewer) complains that a book is not “pleasure reading.” It all depends on your pleasure — if your pleasure is learning something, than a book which makes that possible is highly pleasurable. For example, a manual — if you want to build something, a manual (which is meant to be dry) is pleasure. If you love math, a textbook can be pleasure. Sure we need to make our writing as engaging as possible — but don’t expect every book to be a novel. That is not the pleasure all books afford. Sometimes they open your mind by revealing new truths. Surely we can expand the definition of “pleasure” from “story” to “discovery” — right?