Monday, October 15, 2012

Thoughts from a Nonfiction Book Group of Adults

                I just got home from the Chinese restaurant where my nonfiction book group has met every eight weeks or so for the last seven years.  The group has been the same the whole time, four men and three women whose jobs include two professors (one psych and the other public policy), one child psychiatrist, two newspaper editors, an elementary school educator, and  a librarian turned reviewer and public speaker.  Tonight’s book, The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean, gets the prize for the longest title.  Other than that, it got a pretty typical response.  A few people liked it a lot, most of us kind of liked it, and more than one person thought it needed more editing (it did).  I also thought it needed a glossary, something I’m more prone to suggest, perhaps because I read so many kids’ books.

                Having read more than fifty nonfiction books with the book group, I have a few thoughts that can be extended to kids and nonfiction.
1.       Different people like different nonfiction books.  (Only three books have won unanimous approval:  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower;  and a 1997 birding memoir called Kingbird Highway. You can see what else we’ve read plus some proposed books at )   The lesson to apply to working with kids is to offer them as many choices as possible.  There are so many great nonfiction books that children and teens simply aren’t aware of.  Librarians need to promote nonfiction now more than ever with booktalks, displays, booklists, blogs, QR codes, book trailers, and any other means that alerts students to what’s available.
2.       You can have a great discussion about a book that not everyone likes. Or that no one likes. In fact, some of those discussions are more spirited than when the group members all think a book’s great.   Disagreement leads to good exchanges of opinion.  Sometimes one person shows others what they missed in the book or fills in some missing knowledge that makes the book easier to understand or appreciate.
3.       You can learn something from nonfiction books even when they aren’t outstanding.  While I sometimes read a mediocre novel and feel like I’ve wasted my time, I always take something worthwhile away from a nonfiction book as long as the subject matter's interesting.  For example, our least favorite book over the years was Pets in America, a university press book that was oddly well-reviewed.  Unfortunately, the author was intent on including every fact she ran across in researching the topic, resulting in a catalog of information rather than a shaped narrative.  Still, everyone in the group was fascinated by at least some part of the book, such as the description of a time when squirrels were house pets.  
4.       Choice is a great motivator in reading a book.  This is especially true for readers who think they don’t like nonfiction.  In the book group, we make our choices by members proposing books they’ve read about or heard about but haven’t read yet.  We then look at reviews, talk about it, and agree as a group.  I would be considerably less excited about reading if someone else’s taste always dictated the selection.  For this reason, it’s ideal--as has been mentioned elsewhere in this blog--for teachers to offer some assignments where students get choice in their nonfiction reading.   The students might be restricted to choosing among a group of books gathered by the teacher or a librarian, but that kind of choice is still better than always having readings assigned.
            In case you’re wondering, our next book will be Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.  It was my suggestion and I can’t wait to read it.

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