Saturday, November 29, 2008

Why Read Nonfiction?

I'll admit that I generally prefer fiction to nonfiction. This hasn't always been the case, as I recall. In elementary school, I spent long periods of time at the biography and autobiography shelves, reading all the nurse books (Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell) and the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor (who, I learned, has Asheville, NC, connections). I moved on to Lincoln and to George Washington Carver (who, if he lived now, would be searching for something productive out of tobacco and kudzu). I also went against gender expectations and explored the "We Were There" series, most memorably We Were There at the Battle of Bataan.

Fiction, however, always had my heart. If I listed my top one hundred favorite books, I'm sure more than ninety percent would be works of fiction. At the recent conference, I was gratified to hear several speakers discussing concepts I've believed for years: First, that fiction contains much truth, and second, fact does not always equal truth.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended, in fact, discussed the blurring of lines. One can read historical fiction and learn so much, and one can read memoir and recognize or suspect a certain tampering with exact details. Then there's James Frey's Million Little Pieces.

At my favorite session, Readers Ourselves, I was intrigued to note how many nonfiction titles were mentioned this year. This year, though, one reason I was excited to be going to NCTE in San Antonio was the chance to hear Greg Mortenson, whose book Three Cups of Tea has been quite a publishing sensation. Mortenson is the man whose failure to reach the summit of K2 led to a night in a village in Afghanistan. There he learned that the children had no school and promised to return and build one. He did something extraordinary: he followed through on that promise and has spent his life in Afghanistan and Pakistan building schools.

Before he spoke, Mortenson endured what must be torture for some authors (and the reason others write): posing for pictures with fans. When he spoke, he wasn't the polished orator showing off his wordcraft. He was a passionate advocate for education as a tool for peace. He moved back and forth, pacing as he spoke with genuine conviction.

His message: the real enemy is ignorance. His strongest message is the need to educate girls, quoting an African proverb: If you eduate a boy, you educate an individual; If you educate a girl, yo ueducate a community. He said that a girl who learns to read and write goes home, and her mother asks her to write a letter to her family. This empowers the family. They take the newspaper wrapped around the vegetables and says, "Read to me." He says that the Koran requires that before taking part in a jihad, one must get permission and blessing from his mother. In fact, he has a former Taliban member working as a teacher. He got out because his mother told him he was doing wrong.

The Taliban and other jihadist groups recognize this power, building over 480 schools--educating mostly girls--since 2007. Their greatest fear is not the bullet but the pen. Mortenson pointed out that we don't hear much about the good or bad in education in these areas. Education is, to some extent, invisible. He gave an example, though, of the first girl in the first village to complete her education, devoting two years to the study of maternal health care--at a cost of only eight hundred dollars for the two years' study. If I got the number right, before she began her work, between five and twenty women in her village died each year in childbirth. Since 2000, that number is zero.

This part of the story brought to mind a book I mentioned earlier on the blog, Monique and the Mango Rains, the story of a Peace Corps worker who spent two years in Mali working with Monique, a local woman trained in midwifery. Both of these books, though not great literature by academic standards, are true stories told simply and passionately. As a result, many readers, particularly students, have been moved to do something. The Pennies for Peace program started by school children has raised a great deal of money for Mortenson's project. A young adult version of Three Cups of Tea has been published, as well as a children's version Listen to the Wind. Similarly, many readers have begun to help raise money for training and clinics in Mali and surrounding areas, to help decrease maternal death and infant mortality.

Fiction can half a similar impact on one's beliefs and sensibilities, but nonfiction offers something tangible: a name, a point of contact for anyone who wants to help bring about positive change in the world.

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