Nonfiction narratives help us see how new information fits together

A storyteller’s hands grasp an unseen object, illustrating nonfiction narratives, which are complex and embedded

Nonfiction narratives give us the stories we crave

…when I read the best analytic writing… it often feels like a story to me. The writing unfolds. I enjoy the playing out of ideas and positions, the ways they conflict, the ways questions are raised and explored—the way they are narrated. All of these writers are masters of the embedded story that grounds any point in live experience, which gives it what rhetoricians call presence.

So here is my modest proposition—that narrative is the deep structure of all good writing. All good writing. “Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, of explaining”…even research reports must tell a story.

We never really read for raw information. We can’t.

So-called “informational texts” work only when the writer has been able to establish a set of expectations to drive the reading. This frame stabilizes the reading, gives it purpose, provides a pattern to place the “information” in.

Nonfiction narratives are journeys we take with the writers

Reading, as I am describing it, is not a treasure hunt for the main idea; it is a journey we take with a writer.

Extended informational writing is mediated by a teller; someone is guiding us through facts, theories, or perspectives. We can sense his or her cognitive energy, the fascination with the topic, the delight in the odd and unexpected fact, the sense of irony or humor that leavens even writing on the most serious topics. There is a relationship, a trust even.

When, in the name of pure objectivity, these traits are withheld (usually the case with textbooks), we have difficulty reading; the writing is called academic, synonymous, in the public mind at least, with dullness. Or to use a term from the field of reading, these texts are inconsiderate.

Nonfiction narratives aren’t like textbooks

Whenever I raise the question of comprehending nonfiction, someone asks, How will your ideas help students read textbooks? The short answer is, they won’t.

Textbooks are not read—that is, they do not require sustained attention to the development of an idea, the kind of reading that it might take to read an essay in The Atlantic or a professional research article.

Take, for example, a standard high school text like Biology (Biggs, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, & National Geographic Society, 2007), which weighs in at a hefty 6.2 pounds. For all its bulk, students are rarely asked to read more than three paragraphs before a text break or a new topic occurs. The writing itself seems geared for presenting terminology (all bolded) rather than for engaging a reader. Two or three terms are introduced per page, for a total of approximately 1,500 terms for the entire book. The pages are extraordinarily busy, with sidebars, photos, and diagrams, all distracting in a People Magazine sort of way. So what we have is essentially a dictionary with elaborated definitions.

Nonfiction narratives embed tensions and resolutions that embed information

In the classification schemes of the most respected literacy educators… informational reading is “efferent” and functional, a carrying away, in this case, of information.

Take, for example, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer… What I got was the experience of being with the author as he led me through the cycles of hope and defeat, the carnage of so many patients in such grueling trials, and the hesitant but steady progress of researchers. I retain the sensation of cancer itself becoming the main character of the book—evasive, adaptive, persistent, multiple, an adversary of extraordinary wiliness and devastation. I retain these narrative contours—and the information I retain adheres to them.

…to be taken into a book like The Emperor of All Maladies is to move outside ourselves and to be present as a first-rate mind explains the science and human drama of cancer research.

These writers never leave narrative far behind. Instead, they use narrative in more complex and embedded ways.[2]

  1. “stories. for grownups.” Accessed 11 Mar. 2017.
  2. Newkirk, Thomas. “How We Really Comprehend Nonfiction.” Educational Leadership 69.6 (Mar. 2012): 29-32.

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