Literary nonfiction books, aside from true crime and biographies, are rather hard to find and those I do find are rarely books I’d pick for use in writing classes.
Today I’m going to introduce you to three nonfiction books that, unlike books such as Harry Truman’s Great Adventure or The Fever of 1721, are not literary nonfiction: They include narrative but are not themselves narratives.
My three choices deal in very different ways with how individuals or groups of people incorrectly perceive and misinterpret the world either because of their prior experiences or because of the way humans’ brains work. As the author of one of the three books says:
The End of White Christian America
The End of White Christian America is a history of white Protestant churches’ influence on America’s national policy and the country’s ideals with particular emphasis on the churches’ role throughout the twentieth century and into Barak Obama’s second term.
Author Robert P. Jones set out to discover why white Protestantism, hugely influential in the first 240 years of American history, faded. He found that during the 20th century, Protestant churches divided into two groups according to their theology, beliefs about race, and what Jones calls “accommodations to the modern world and science,” specifically their positions on evolution and racial issues.
Jones says: “This is a story of theology and culture, but it is also a story of powerful demographic changes.” His findings may help students bewildered by what may seem to them to be hysterical behavior over what they may consider to be settled issues of science, race, and gender.
The End of White Christian America. Robert P. Jones. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, © 2016. 322 p. Available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions.
Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change
White Protestant America might be different today if its adherents had had psychologist Timothy D. Wilson’s Redirect.
Wilson’s work builds on the long-known fact that how people interpret events has much more influence on their behavior than the events themselves. What’s more, human brains jump to make sense of what just happened to their owners, and they do it so quickly people don’t realize that what their brains report is an interpretation of what happened not an observation of what happened. From that foundation, Wilson built techniques he calls story editing, “which is a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior.”
Redirect has multiple applications in a school setting. Several chapters deal with prevention issues: pregnancy prevention, prevention of abuse of alcohol and drugs, violence prevention, discrimination prevention. There’s also a reading group guide.
Redirect is particularly useful for writing teachers because in the first chapter it gives a simple tool—perfectly suited to use in writing classes—for shaping students’ behavior in positive ways. To use the tool, you need to view students’ situation from their perspective and get them to redirect their narratives about that situation, which is pretty much what you need to do to teach students to write.
In a writing class for adult students who are parents or who supervise employees, Redirect could be used as nonfiction reading. While it’s not as engaging as narrative nonfiction, it’s well-written and should be well within the reading skills of adult learners.
Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Timothy D. Wilson. Back Bay Books; Little, Brown. © 2011. Paperback edition 2015. 297 p. Available in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and in audio CD
A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives
The cover of Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own shows a middle-aged, bald guy whose thought bubble reveals his brain tells him he’s a muscular, iron-pumping type. Inside, Fine describes in well-documented facts that human brains are so well built to put the best possible interpretation on any of its owner’s experiences that only a few people have anything like a realistic view of themselves.
Fine doesn’t delve deep into the brain’s anatomy and physiology. Her interest is on the observable human behaviors that brains trigger in their owners. Fine’s writing is witty and charming, but you can’t speed-read it. Just because her writing isn’t academic and dull, doesn’t mean it isn’t thorough and precise. You need to pay attention.
Chapter 7, “The Weak-Willed Brain: The Prima Donna Within” holds ideas of particular relevance to teachers because we phrase many of the tasks we give students in ways that disassociate will, determination, mind, imagination, behavior, conscious effort, think, and even make up your mind from the congregation of cells we call the brain. Fine deliberately connects those terms to the brain.
For example, she says, “The conscious is not every good at multitasking,” and “the will is feeble, drained by emotions; it is thin-skinned, and has woefully limited powers of concentration.” Because of those limits, she says, when you need to change behavior (your own or those of a student), you should concentrate on one behavior at a time.
Fine’s book is relevant to older teens and adults and might be used in the second semester of a two-semester course as background reading for writing prompts. It’s certainly is a good book to have on your classroom shelves for students to browse.
A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. Cordelia Fine. W. W. Norton. © 2006. First published as paperback 2008. 243 p. Available in hardback, paperback, Kindle, and MP3 formats.
©2021 Linda G. Aragoni