Friday, January 13, 2006

Booknote: Nonfiction Readers' Advisory

Title: Nonfiction Readers' Advisory
Various authors, edited by Robert Burgin
Publication Information: Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004
ISBN: 1-59158-115-X
Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Library science, readers' advisory, reading

I got a lot out of this book, so my readers will find a couple of other posts referring to this book in the next week or so. Mostly some brief things I started thinking about from reading the book. I just saw this note was going to be very long, so I decided to split the draft into separate posts to make it easy on readers as well as help me see some things better. Now, on to the note.

The only thing I wish this book had was more book lists of good nonfiction. However, that aside, this book provides an excellent overview and guide to readers' advisory for nonfiction readers. I wanted to read this book for various reasons. First, I wanted to keep up my knowledge of RA. Second, I read a lot of nonfiction for pleasure. I especially enjoy history and microhistories, but I explore other areas as well. My third reason for reading this book is a bit more practical, and it has to do with some reading courses the university offers. I will be making a note on that next time.

The book is divided in four parts, and it contains a total of twelve chapters written by different contributors. The four parts look at history of RA and nonfiction, materials, readers, and practical advice. I found particularly valuable the discussions of appeal factors, the genres within nonfiction, and some of the practical advice. For those interested in librarianship history, , the historical sections may be interesting. I read them, but I could have skipped through those because a lot of the material is stuff I saw during my RA classes in library school. I do think they provide a good context overall.

I am going to make some specific notes from the book, some quotes and some of my ideas/responses to them. They are kind of reminders for me of things I would like to keep track of. For readers just wanting my conclusion, they can skip the bullet points and go to the end of the post. By the way, each chapter does include a list of references for further reading on the topic of nonfiction RA; these lists often include websites. However, with the exception of Chapter 10, there are no lists of the actual works.

  • From Chapter 3, some broad nonfiction categories: biography, memoir, history, contemporary issues. Other categories are science writing, sports, food and travel.
  • Nonfiction "shares with fiction the appeal factors that have been set forth in the library and information science literature, including Characterization, Pacing, Story Line, Setting, and Use of Language" (75). I had those four concepts practically drilled into me when I was taking my Adult RA class. Actually, they can be quite helpful to quickly evaluate a book.
  • From Chapter 5, reasons that A/V materials are not fully utilized in libraries: unfamiliarity with formats, lack of reference sources about these materials, and some difficulties with access (use of linear tape vs a CD or DVD) (88). The chapter does provide some good resources to address the need for reference sources including the Internet Movie Database and Video Librarian.
  • Chapter 6 looks at what motivates nonfiction readers. The material is based on actual interviews with readers. Some example of the open-ended questions asked of the interviewees:
    • "How do you choose a book to read for pleasure?"
    • "Are there types of books that you do not enjoy and would not choose?" (emphasis in original)
    • "What are you currently reading?"
    • "Has there ever been a book that has made a big difference to your life in one way or another?" (106). Actually, I wrote an answer to this question in March of last year. Readers can find it here.
  • Chapter 6 also gives 13 observations about nonfiction readers. Number one was "many readers read BOTH fiction and nonfiction for pleasure" (107). I will only say that this sounds self-evident, and it applies to me personally. Number four was "some readers reported that nonfiction was easier than fiction to read when you are more likely to be interrupted" (109). I am finding this to be true from my commuting experience. I tend to prefer reading novels at home, often before bedtime, because they do require a higher degree of immersion. Nonfiction tends to be easier to pick up and drop as needed. However, I will note that I have seen some people reading novels on the commute. My guess is they must have a higher level of concentration than I have (or they just prefer fiction). I do see a good share of people who read nonfiction as well. For instance, Joel Osteen's book Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential was very popular last couple of months. Anyhow, my observations on the commute are strictly anecdotal, but I wonder if it might make an interesting follow-up study to look at reading habits of commuters. Observation number eleven is "part of the joy of reading is serendipitous discovery" (115). This is very true for me. Very often I pick nonfiction titles to read on the basis they seem interesting, something different, on a chance than actually looking for something specific.
  • Chapter 12 provides a genre list, which is better defined than the categories on Chapter 3. Each genre includes three to five titles to illustrate. This chapter also contains a good list of resource websites, some of which I added to my RA bookmarks. The genres listed are: biography, autobiography, memoirs and diaries, true crime, travelogues or books with a strong sense of place, medicine, journalistic reportage or exposés of social issues, essays or short true stories, humor, overcoming adversity, adventure, disaster or survival, history, microhistories, science, technology and inventions. I am sure other RA experts may add or remove categories. I personally found this more useful in terms of defining a scope of nonfiction for pleasure reading in a concise way.
Overall, I recommend the book. New librarians coming to RA will get much use out of it. It should probably be featured in RA classes in library schools. If I was teaching RA, I would ask my students to have it, at least as an optional text (I am being cost conscious). The book works best when readers scan for what they need, which I think is what practicing librarians will do.

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