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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Sandwich: NF and F with some critical thinking on the side

Years ago Margery Cuyler, who is now publisher at Marshall Cavendish, and I worked together. She said that my temperament was that of a pioneer — I like to explore ahead. That is true, and this fall I am teaching a class at Rutgers on how youth service libraries should deal with ebooks and apps — but the challenge for me is that I will learning along with the students. That is, I know enough to be curious, not enough to be certain. So I am calling on people already active in this field to come and meet the students, while I serve as host and ring master. Yesterday I spoke with David Rothrock of Follett, who gave me a beginning introduction to their Titlewave site — David showed me the shelves of ebook titles schools can purchase from them — with unlimited access, and that gave me an idea.

Right now, if you look up Red Badge of Courage on Titlewave you will get all sorts of options — books, audio, various editions. But all of these are complete — the book from first page to last. What if a similar database went a step further and offered suggested combinations — a chapter of Red Badge with a chapter from, say, Jim Murphy’s book on Antietam, or his book on Boys at War, or Ryan Smithson’s Ghost of War memoir about serving in Iraq, or War Is, which Patty Campbell and I edited. In other words, once books exist in digital form and schools have full access, the book need not be the unit — teachers should be able to take chapters from different books, pairing NF and F, and giving kids a much more rich and engaging entry into both history and fiction. Of course books, fiction and nonfiction, have an intended narrative arc. But there is a difference between a lesson — read chapter 2 from Red Badge and chapter 3 from Boys tonight and come in prepared to compare fictional and actual experiences — and an experience — you have X weeks to read Red Badge, we will discuss it each day in class. Each have their value.

Think of the fascinating menu creative teachers could create — and maybe another generated by authors themselves — the mix and match of chapters from novels and nonfiction commenting on one another, interweaving, creating the opportunity for cross-curricular knowledge on the level of chapters, moments, beats within books. Like modern chefs, some teachers might create striking and unusual pairings — juxtaposing chapters one might never have seen together but which create a strangely apt and tangy mix; while more traditional meat and potatoes teachers might go by time period — Civil War history to fit with Civil War novel. In effect the digital bookshelf becomes the staging ground for the digital anthology — created out of mining the tables of contents in the thousands of books to create the most useful combinations.

Payment? Now schools pay for access — the single etitle plus some premium so all can share it. But once the school pays that, what is the difference between sharing the book and sharing a chapter from that book? Couldn’t there be a roundup model — you get to select up to, say, 25 NF and 50 F titles (assuming there is more fiction to choose from), pay for access plus some premium, then you can use not just the books, but chapters from the books, as you like. If there is some book you just must add which is not in your mix, you pay some extra fee for that — like the lunches they now sell on airplanes. Then there would be some teacher forum where instructors share the combinations they have come up with and tell how they used them in class.

Long live the ebook sandwhich, let NF and F live long and prosper together.


  1. One of the challenges of ebooks in our university library is that the virtual copy is still a single copy. The unlimited access that Titlewave seems to offer is amazing, and allows for the same versatility that the academic ebooks offer – a chapter or two from one text can be combined with articles from a variety of other sources. It’s yet another way that the teacher can create the text set, rather than rely on the text book. Think of those aforementioned book chapters examined alongside primary sources from the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the National Archives, and one of the online historic newspaper databases. What more do you need?

    Ebooks for classroom use can be quite exciting if school systems have the capacity for students to access the ebooks and use them in and out of class. In terms of school delivery standards, we need to a uniform system of measurement to determine schools’ capacities to meet the Common Core Standards in this digital age, a way to make sure that students and teachers have equal access to these resources. We need a national initiative to figure out how to grow a program like Maine’s laptop initiative that starts in middle school. It’s a fascinating crossroads…to be in this ongoing economic crisis and watch school and school library funds wither away, while also bearing witness to this rapid transformation in the possibilities of school-based reading. It feels a bit like the fox and the grapes, doesn’t it?