Just the Facts, Please

It's time to put beautifully-written nonfiction books into our English classrooms. I'm not the first to suggest it. But it's the sort of idea that gains momentum each time it's repeated.


Take a look at any compilation of commonly-assigned works, and the absence is conspicuous. In courses that focus on composition, rhetoric, and interpretation, we teach plays, novels, and poetry. The occasional exceptions are memoirs, drawn from that most novelistic of non-fiction genres. There may also be an anthology on the reading list. If teachers are so inclined, they can assign some of its brief essays, speeches, or letters. But this is akin to teaching fiction without anything longer than a short story.

The results are tragic. Many students grow up without ever encountering the pleasures of a beautifully-crafted work of history, or a sparklingly-clear explanation of science, or a thrilling exploration of a transformative idea. When such works are, from time to time, included in the syllabi of their respective subjects, they tend to be employed as a relatively palatable means of conveying facts to students, and not analyzed for their style or structure.

This is a shame. Beautiful writing in any genre requires skill and artistry. There's no better way to demonstrate that than handing a class The Panda's Thumb, Battle Cry of Freedom, Common Ground, Friday Night Lights or anything ever written by John McPhee, and asking the students to figure out how they cast their spell. If they take away some information that aids them in their other studies, so much the better. But that's a bonus. We need to teach them how to write about other people, other places, and other times; how to wrestle with the limits of knowledge when the gaps cannot be plugged by imagination; how to convey complicated thoughts in simple words; how to pull a clear narrative line from the tangled skein of life; and above all, how to find their own rhythm and sing the music of language.

So I'll close with an open question. If it were up to you, what works of non-fiction would you assign to be studied as literature?


This post first appeared here under the name Cynic.

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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