I’m sure many of you have read Chris Harris’s thought-provoking essay, on The End of Nonfiction: http://tinyurl.com/8yte6lj
I’ve admired Chris from a distance over the years for his full-on plunge into technology, librarianship, and education — he seems to be totally familiar with every digital development I’m just reading about. And there are several strands in his essay that match exactly what I’ve been writing about here and talking about with teachers, librarians, and students all over the country: the need to get rid of the confusing name “nonfiction” — a relic of the 19th century — the difference between authors whose strength is passing on what they Know, and authors whose strength is sharing their journey as Learners (Betty Carter’s helpful terms), the need that Myra and Mary Ann have articulated here to recognize the different “stances” taken by authors, and to match patrons needs not just with content (“I need a book on the Civil War”) but with approach (“where are the fact books, where are the history detective books, where are the big picture scene setting, in the action books?”) As his essay shows, he is seeing the same universe of challenge and opportunity we’ve discussed here. But.
Chris says the CC requires primary sources and short texts. Sort of. The CC is asking young people to become familiar, as early as possible, with Point of View as a necessary aspect of knowledge, and thus to become early historiographers — comparing and contrasting how one author handled evidence and argument with another. That is not a skill you can get from looking at a primary sources — they are hard to read, as they necessarily use the language of their time, and reflect the culture of their moment. To begin to evaluate and make use of evidence you need a guide — sure that is the teacher’s job in class — but it is also the author’s job in a book. That is not the same as telling a story, and it is not the same as providing discrete data points of information. Indeed the author’s role as finder, evaluator, crafter, and sharer of evidence is crucial not merely to the learning a book can offer, but to the reading experience. That is what we need to remember about our books, they are not just another form of story, and they are not just databases of approved facts. Rather they are a set of contentions, arguments: tapestries of ideas, insights, and evidence we individuals have woven.
So I agree with Chris that we need to rethink our libraries — but not by turning reference over to the net, lumping NF story with other story, and featuring CC-approved bits of primary sources with short narratives. The heartbeat of real “knowledge books” (as one term we might use) is the individual fabric we authors weave — which serve as models for our students, as they glean bits of data and begin to feel the warp and weft of knowledge-creation. Real books have authors, whether we call those books novels, poems, plays, biographies, or theories. and it is those authors who have most to offer young people as they enter the Common Core universe.