How We Really Comprehend Nonfiction - ASCD
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March 1, 2012

How We Really Comprehend Nonfiction

Although we tend to downplay the importance of narrative, nonfiction is all about plot.

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You be the judge. Which of these two sentences is easier to read?

The Appeals Court's position is one of rejection concerning the proposed individual mandate.orThe Appeals Court has rejected the proposed individual mandate.

Obviously the second sentence is, even if it's expanded:

The Appeals Court, in a unanimous ruling, rejected the proposed individual mandate.

This sentence has almost the same number of words as the first one I cited, but it retains an architecture—the subject-verb-object sequence—that is easier to process. We innately prefer sentences that tell a small story: An agent is acting, having an effect on something (Williams, 2002). We have a craving for narrative.

This simple comparison can help us move to a wider question about how we read longer stretches of writing in various genres, many of which are not thought of as narrative. The conventional wisdom is that we employ radically different reading skills when we read (or write) texts that are variously called informational, analytic, or argumentative—indeed, that moving toward these texts (and away from narrative) should be a feature of high school and college reading. The clear message in the common core literacy standards is that narrative reading is to be reduced in the upper grades and that college-ready students need to master the more demanding tasks of reading texts that are not narrative (see Coleman & Pimental, 2011).

One might even argue that this hierarchy goes back to Plato's Republic (380 BCE/1991), in which philosophers were placed above artists and the conceptual above the visual. So any argument to the contrary faces a pretty strong headwind.

But when I read the best analytic writing—the work of Michael Pollan, Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Jay Gould, Jonah Lehrer, Elizabeth Kolbert, my favorite columnists, even Plato for that matter—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. This work confirms the claim of Robert Frost that "everything written is as good as it is dramatic. It need not declare itself in form, but it is drama or it is nothing" (quoted in Poirier, 1997, p. 452).

So here is my modest proposition—that narrative is the deep structure of all good writing. All good writing. We struggle with writers who dispense with narrative form and simply present information because we are given no frame for comprehension. Mark Turner (1996), a cognitive psychologist and literary critic, puts it this way: "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" (pp. 4–5) (see also Eubanks, 2004). This claim is true for even the most specialized academic writing; 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. Otherwise, there is no motor, no dynamic forward movement. This frame stabilizes the reading, gives it purpose, provides a pattern to place the "information" in. If readers fail to detect this pattern (or writers fail to construct it), they simply drift on, defeated by the specifics of the text. I am talking about more than a thesis. I mean a human problem or situation that needs examination, something that matters, that calls for writing.

So rather than pretending to move beyond narrative, we should be teaching students how it works in their reading—and how to employ narrative in their writing.

What Students Should Attend to as They Read

Looking for Trouble

Tolstoy begins his epic novel Anna Karenina (1877/1995) with the famous line, "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." It follows that unhappiness, some form of trouble, is the starting point for the plot; a character is stifled in his or her situation, or is trying to avoid something, or must confront some loss, or is tempted in some way.

Take, for example, this opening to a story by Ben Marcus (2011), "What Have You Done?":

When Paul's flight landed in Cleveland, they were waiting for him. They'd probably arrived early, set up camp right where the passengers float off the escalator scanning for family. They must have huddled there watching the arrivals board, hoping in the backs of their minds, and the mushy front parts of their minds, too, yearning with their entire minds that Paul would do what he usually did—or didn't—and just not come home. (p. 55)

So much trouble here. Paul clearly doesn't want to be here, visiting his "mushy"-brained family—and he suspects that they would just as soon he didn't come. We learn that there is a history of their waiting for him, and his failing to show up. But he's here, and they're here, and the story has forward movement. How will this encounter play out? Also, we have a sense of how the story will be narrated, from Paul's perspective, with full access to his negative opinions about his family (and himself).

Now let's look at a nonfiction opening, the beginning to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food (2009), a book that would be classified as argumentation:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat to be maximally healthy.I hate to give the game away right here in the beginning of a whole book devoted to the subject, and I am tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a couple hundred more pages or so. I'll try to resist, but will go ahead and add a few more details to flesh out the recommendations. Like, eating a little meat isn't going to kill you, though it might be better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you're better off eating whole fresh foods rather than processed food products. That's what I mean by the recommendation to "eat food," which is not quite as simple as it sounds. (p. 1)

I contend that the same process is at work. There is trouble here as well. Why must this expert on food tell us that his main recommendation is to "eat food"? How have we gotten to a place where this notion is at all controversial or even an interesting thing to advise us to do? Why is it "not as simple as it sounds"? What gets in our way of "eating food"? In other words, we have the beginning of a plot. We have an itch to scratch.

Literary form, described by Kenneth Burke (1931) as "an arousing and fulfillment of desire" (p. 124), is absolutely central in works we would not consider literary. Because you are clearly still reading this article, you probably sense that I am following the pattern I am describing. There is "trouble" in the way we categorize kinds of writing—a conflict between our innate need for narrative structure and the claims that we should move beyond narrative to more demanding texts. Proposals and research reports similarly follow this kind of pattern: There is an unmet social problem, or an irreconcilable position in a field of study, or new evidence that challenges accepted views. Articulating this "trouble" is integral to such academic reading and writing.

Consequently, openings should be read very slowly, and reread if possible. So much is happening. So many commitments are being made, which is why writers often find them so nerve-wracking to write. Openings establish the topic, suggest the problem, and convey a sense of the narration and tone of the piece, risking at any millisecond that the reader will go elsewhere. Sometimes when I hear that students are taught to write "introductions," I think, "Introduction? What is this? A kaffee klatch?" There is far more work to be done than "introducing" a thesis; the writer has the much more difficult (but interesting) task of creating the need for the thesis, of setting up the dramatic structure of the piece, one that a reader aligns with.

Identifying the Players

Readers of fiction instinctively begin with the questions, Who are the actors? and How are they in conflict? We have no interest in reading about the mythical happy families that Tolstoy mentions.

Similarly, all analytic writing needs conflicting perspectives, contending solutions, weaknesses and strengths, even good guys and bad guys. If these positions can be attached to spokespersons, so much the better for the drama. Writing is dialogic, involving multiple voices, orchestrated by the author. To comprehend a text is to be attuned to this conflict.

Several years ago, I had a reading crisis of my own when I had to teach a graduate seminar in rhetorical theory that spanned two millennia (most programs responsibly break this up into different courses). I had a good anthology, but it covered so many diverse writers, intellectual traditions, eras, rhetorical issues, and writing styles that I was panicked about where to start. It was educational malpractice for sure. But I began to read each writer with the questions, Whom is this writer responding to? Whom is he or she arguing with? What provoked this writing? In the seminar, we all acknowledged that we were in over our heads, but we dug in and tried to establish this conversation. It's been a lifeline for me ever since.

Attending to Patterns of Thought

Reading, as I am describing it, is not a treasure hunt for the main idea; it is a journey we take with a writer. Gretchen Bernabei (2005) encourages her students to make flowcharts of the basic moves of nonfiction writers to track this movement of the mind. Take, for example, a classic text in American history, Martin Luther King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. To comprehend this great achievement, a reader (or listener) needs to attend to the "plot" that King creates. There is trouble from the onset. He invokes Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation but soon sounds a dark note:

But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

In this opening, King establishes the central conflict of the speech—the gap between the promise of freedom and the realities of racial discrimination. In the middle section, he moves to the question of what must be done to get to the "promised land"; in the final part, he describes what that promised land will be. To comprehend the speech is to be attuned to this construction of tension and resolution, something we miss when we only focus on the speech's better-known conclusion.

Engaging with a Teller

We don't get information raw. Even telephone books are constructed with categories and with some information highlighted. Extended informational writing is mediated by a teller; someone is guiding us through facts, theories, or perspectives. Sometimes this teller uses an "I" and perhaps even relates personal stories connected with the topic. But even when the "I" is not used, there is an authorial presence, as Thoreau reminds us at the beginning of Walden (1854/2000), "it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking" (p. 3).

Great nonfiction writers know how to employ this "I." In that short Michael Pollan opening, he writes, "I hate to give away the game right here … " The game? "Keep things going for a couple hundred pages … " Things? It's like he is saying, "It's really stupid that I even have to write this book about something so obvious, but I do." We know what kind of guide or narrator we will travel with—one with a swagger—and I am with him.

Even when the "I" is not used, the personality of the writer is not effaced. 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.

The elephant in this room of nonfiction is, of course, the textbook. 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. As historian Frances Fitzgerald (1980) notes about history texts, they are not really written, they are "developed." If this is the kind of nonfiction we provide students, no wonder they come to dislike reading (and history, for that matter). It is tedious going.

Why We Read Nonfiction After All

It is a truism that we read informational writing for … information. It is the antithesis to literary reading. It is the sober, rational, practical, and duller older brother. In the classification schemes of the most respected literacy educators—Louise Rosenblatt (1994), for example—informational reading is "efferent" and functional, a carrying away, in this case, of information. We build our store of knowledge with it.

But my own reading of excellent nonfiction doesn't work that way. Take, for example, Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and arguably one of the greatest pieces of expository writing in the last decade. If anyone were to quiz me on the information in this book—ask me to name the major experimenters or give a rudimentary account of the cell biology work—I would fail miserably. And who knows how much I will retain a year from now? Yet reading this book was one of the most thrilling and gratifying experiences I have had in years. What did I get, if not information?

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.

In other words, I hold on to this nonfiction book in the same way I retain my appreciation of much fiction. The details quickly become a blur, and I recall only basic themes and the feeling the book created for me. I retain the sensation of Mukherjee leading me though this terrain, employing a network of stories—about researchers, about his own practice with cancer patients, and especially about cancer itself, how it begins, how it grows.

The great value of works like this, like good fiction, is that we put ourselves in the hands of someone else. We sign on for the journey. If we only read for bits of information, if all nonfiction is viewed as a glorified phone book, we simply plug that information into preexisting schema and we don't change (which is why I think a lot of Internet reading only confirms prejudices). In that case, Wikipedia would suffice. But 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. I suspect this fellow-traveling is the great lasting benefit we get from sustained reading of good nonfiction.

These writers never leave narrative far behind. Instead, they use narrative in more complex and embedded ways. It's time we let students in on the secret.

References

Bernabei, G. (2005). Reviving the essay: How to teach structure without formula. Shoreham, VT: Discovery Writing.

Biggs, A., Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, & National Geographic Society. (2007). Biology. Columbus, OH: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.

Burke, K. (1931). Counter-statement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Coleman, D., & Pimental, S. (2011). Publishers' criteria for the Common Core Standards in English language arts and literacy, grades 3–12. Retrieved from Common Core State Standards Initiative at www.corestandards.org/assets/Publishers_Criteria_for_3-12.pdf

Eubanks, P. (2004). Poetics and narrativity: How texts tell stories. In C. Bazerman & P. Prior (Eds.), What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices (pp. 33–56). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Fitzgerald, F. (1980). America revised. New York: Vintage.

King, M. L. (n.d.). The "I have a dream" speech. Retrieved from U.S. Constitution Online at www.usconstitution.net/dream.html (Original work published 1963)

Marcus, B. (2011, August 8). What have you done? New Yorker, 54–63.

Mukherjee, S. (2011). The emperor of all maladies: A biography of cancer. New York: Scribners.

Plato. (380 BCE/1991). The republic of Plato (A. Bloom, Trans). Boston: Basic Books. (Original work published approx. 380 BCE)

Poirier, R. (1997). Reading pragmatically. In L. Menard (Ed.), Pragmatism: A reader (pp. 403–455). New York: Vintage.

Pollan, M. (2009). In defense of food: An eater's manifesto. New York: Penguin.

Rosenblatt, L. (1994). The reader, the text, and the poem: The transactional theory of the literacy work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Thoreau, H. D. (1854/2000). Walden and civil disobedience. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (Original work published 1854)

Tolstoy, L. (1877/1995). Anna Karenina. (L. & A. Maude, Trans.). Ware, England: Wordsworth Classics. (Original work published 1877)

Turner, M. (1996). The literary mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williams, J. (2002). Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace (7th ed.). New York: Longman.

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