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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Short Bits: NF as Fast Food

The discussion theme over at the CCBC listserve has been on nonfiction — first books in the elementary years, now middle grade and high school. Woven in to that discussion — which generally wavers between people listing fave raves and broader and more thematic posts — has been concern about exactly the same issue I posted about last week: the way CC seems to favor short NF texts drawn from primary sources, especially in the upper grades. The fear raised by some on CCBC, which kind of matches what Chris Harris seems to favor, is that textbook houses and database providers will soon offer (or are already developing) the Macdonald’s of NF — many happy meals of approved short passages from cannonical documents, doubtless with all sorts of handy supporting materials — such as competing essays and interpretations, along with easy-to-use skill-building frameworks for taking notes and framing reports.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — I am dubious about primary sources. It is very difficult to make sense of material from another era — context is all important. I’m a trained historian and I don’t go to primary sources until I feel very well grounded in secondary sources — I need to know what experts have made of something before I test myself. Otherwise I am so likely to stumble over something that has long been investigated and understood. The example I always use is “pursuit of happiness.” What does that mean? Why is that phrase front and center in the most crucial of American primary source documents? What did it mean to Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams (who collaborated in drafting the DOI)? One view is that this mainly refers to property — the right to enjoy what you own. Another, ventured in Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful book Swerve, is that it is a bow to Epicurianism — which was important to Jefferson. The one thing I would not do is ask young people “what do you think it means” without giving them any tools, any context, for understanding — not, “what does it mean to you,” but “what did it mean to them?”

If our books have something to offer it is something in between the document and its meaning — our hunt for answers, our insight filtered through our adult learning, our method of thought and study. I could see an interesting kind of book that offered a primary source, competing interpretations, and then a chapter in which an author who writes for those readers picks his or her way through the thicket — offering a model response. But that is not a happy meal, it is a slow exploration — better for the stomach, and the brain.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I anxiously await the type of book you describe. It would be very useful to have a well-grounded history writer present a primary source, various interpretations of that source, and then the author’s efforts to interpret it. That’s exactly the kind of nonfiction we need to help students think historically because it shows HOW to think with a disciplinary lens. As I learned researching my own writing, for historians “context is everything.”

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I do some of that with photos in Master of Deceit, but will think of other possibilities.

  3. It’s gratifying to see how you perform your research because that’s how I do mine as well. I start with secondary sources (from leading scholars) and weave my way back to the primary sources with, hopefully, a solid understanding of context–historical and political.

    The challenge, sometimes, is dealing with facts that contradict perceived understandings of a period in history. For example, research from both secondary and primary sources indicate that no one in the ancient world ever had a moral problem with slavery. Any uprisings (Spartacus, etc.) were always driven by slaves and never supported and/or even understood by other classes in society. This is hard for us to understand today but the moral questioning of slavery–as a practice–didn’t begin until the 16th/17th centuries (some of this had to do with the fact that ancient slaves could work/pay their way out of slavery).

    The BEST that Romans could do when addressing slavery was to recommend that slaver owners not mistreat/beat/kill their slaves (Seneca), not because of a moral obligation to treat other humans fairly, but because it would reflect badly on themselves as Romans. This fact alone tells us so much about the Roman mindset!

    I was surprised to hear the occasional reviewer question my depiction of ancient slavery in my latest work. One even wondered why my protagonist–a banished royal–didn’t question the practice as a whole. Yet it would’ve been historically incorrect to have had her do so. To impose the moral reasoning of different period just because it’s uncomfortable/abhorrent to us is a dangerous practice. Even such a hot topic as slavery must be understood in the moral, political, economic and religious context of the period under review.

    Sorry to go on, but (obviously) this is a topic close to my heart!

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    I agree both broadly and specifically — indeed I wrote about slavery in Rome in Race and made similar observations; there was a very interesting review of a book on manumission in Rome in a recent TLS, and the broad point of the review is how central slavery and then manumission were to Roman society. The broader point, which deserves its own exploration beyond this one subject, is how reviewers in our world often make “common sense” observations or hesitations about our work, when they have not made the effort to look at the academic sources we use. We ran into this with Sugar, where some questioned whether Sugar could have been so central to abolition, or whether indeed enslaved Africans might fairly be called the first moderns — and yet both concusions were solidly within the best recent scholarship. Reviewers need to take the time to check our sources if they are going to raise questions about our concusions — or, at a minimum, consult with academic experts who know the literature we use. An off the cuff reading based on contemporary sensibilities is simply not fair to deeply researched work.

  5. While I agree that primary sources need to be provided with secondary source context, I have found them remarkably helpful with younger children in making the past tangible and real. I personally find it thrilling to handle and view and study material from long ago and I think that can be very true for students as well. It makes all the information real and personal and makes many a child sit up and take notice. Museums, archives, and libraries are offering wonderful online ways (when they are not accessible in person) to connect with all sorts of primary sources — objects, documents, video, music, and more. I’m excited that the Common Core standards may encourage more use of all of these!


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