Nonfiction exemplar with wide appeal

Martin Doyle’s The Source

Photo of river is front cover of The Source.

After reading just the introduction to The Source, I wrote in my notebook that it “dramatically summarizes the role of rivers in language that’s very accessible and vivid. This guy writes incredibly well.”  

I’ve since read Martin Doyle’s entire book twice and my initial enthusiasm hasn’t diminished. I recommend you grab a copy to read and use in your writing courses.  Students interested in the environment, history, law, government, agriculture, and business would find value in The Source. If you’re so lucky as to have a budding journalist among your students, that person can also learn a great deal from The Source.

Why rivers matter to America

Doyle opens The Source with an explanation of why its rivers were so important to America in its first 50 years as a nation. He says “rivers are the defining feature of America” and  history played out on a landscape defined by rivers.” Doyle says although its rivers “shaped the very ideas of what America should be,” but “Americans changed their rivers.”

In the first section of The Source, Doyle shows how Federalism came to control such activities as river navigation and flood control. In the first chapter, Doyle points out the obvious fact (which I hope I’m not the only person never to have noticed) that there are no North-South rivers east of the Appalachians. Because of that, he says in the 18th and 19th centuries all east coast commerce was along rivers running West to East and thus was “conducted within single political ideologies.” Doyle also shows how the Erie Canal positioned New York to become the nation’s commercial hub and tied the northern states to the states West of the Appalachians instead of to Southern states.

From those river-bound facts, it was only a step to the War Between the States.

River-related decisions are controversial

In the first section of The Source, before they’ve read much more than 100 pages, readers have all the concepts they need to understand how its rivers were instrumental in shaping America’s history. They should certainly understand that having the federal government in charge of managing rivers—a decision that harks back to Thomas Jefferson’s basing the Army Corps of Engineers permanently at West Point to protect American commerce and to oversee “America’s river-related decisions”—means that sometimes flood control is managed or mismanaged by people who lack local knowledge of either threats or resources.

In the remaining four sections of The Source, Doyle looks at controversies that have arisen in the U.S. over use of its rivers and the different ways individuals, communities, and government bodies have chosen to use their rivers for everything from recreation to sewage disposal. What makes Doyle’s book unusual among the stacks of nonfiction books published each year is the way he brings his story down to the level at which ordinary readers—including your students—live.

Doyle puts technical topics into everyday language. He writes for interested non-experts, people who saw a story on TV or read a news article, but didn’t understand why a particular set of events happened. Even when Doyle is discussing technical topics, readers don’t need to stop on every page to look up some unfamiliar term that’s essential to understanding his message. Your students will appreciate that.

And Doyle clearly likes the people he writes about. He has a sense of humor that stops well short of ridiculing people whose opinions readers (and perhaps Doyle himself) might find a trifle wacky. Doyle directs the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy solutions and is a professor of river science and policy at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. The jacket notes for The Source don’t mention that Doyle also teaches writing, but you should mention it if you use The Source in a writing course or even if you just make it available for students to borrow.

The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers. Martin Doyle. W.W. Norton, 2018. 349 pp. including notes.  

I bought hardback copies of The Source from www.hamiltonbook.com for less than the cost of a Danielle Steele paperback. Copies were available 2022-03-17.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Murder, mail, & math tables

3 literary nonfiction reading options

A murder case, the post office, and computer experts offer insights into history.

For the first quarter of 2022, I have chosen three literary nonfiction titles suitable for high school or first-year college students to read as part of an English class. Where a book might also be used for as reading for another subject, I’ve noted that.  

Conan Doyle for the Defense

The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, once did some sleuthing to solve a murder. In Conan Doyle for the Defense, Margaret Fox tells what happened after an old lady nobody liked was murdered in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1909 and a man who ticked off all the top prejudices of his day was charged with her murder.

Conan Doyle once played Sherlock Homes.

Based on what he read in the newspapers, Doyle believed Oscar Slater was wrongly accused. Doyle did his own investigation—he believed the police had botched it—and published a book in 1912 alleging a miscarriage of justice. Slater languished in prison until after WWI, when journalists took up Slater’s cause. Slater was released—but not exonerated—in 1927 after 18 years in prison. Doyle subsequently sued Slater for reimbursement of his expenses. The case was settled out of court.

Fox’s book will have most appeal to students interested in criminal investigations, forensics, policing, and law. The story requires readers to do their own investigation to put facts in time-order and determine which information should be treated as clues.

Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer. Margaret Fox. ©2018. Random House. 220 p.

How the Post Office Created America

Winifred Gallagher says “the history of the Post Office is nothing less than the history of America.” She goes on to prove her thesis, starting before the Revolution when Benjamin Franklin was one of British Crown’s two postmaster generals in North America.

Horsepower delivered early America’s mail.

The postal service and publishing were closely linked from earliest days. Distributing newspapers was one of the services for which the postal service was established after the Revolutionary War. Shared information was seen as the way to create united states.

The postal service subsidized the transportation industry that spurred the development of roads and encouraged westward expansion. Until post WWI, mail delivery was viewed as a public service rather than as a business. Gallagher discusses how the postal service got into its current predicament and explored proposed options.

How the Post Office Created America lets readers learn about U.S. history by showing how the post office affected people’s actual lives. Sixteen pages of photos help make Gallagher’s text spring to life. The book would be a good English course accompaniment to a course in U.S. history.

How the Post Office Created America: A History. Winifred Gallagher.©2016. Penguin Press. 326 p.

The Rise of the Rocket Girls

As early as the 1700s, people called computers did complex mathematical calculations. In the early 20th century, computers worked for the government where, among other things, they developed the Mathematical Tables Project that would later be critical to the first steps into space.

Women behind the space program.

Just four months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory made a propeller-less, rocket-powered airplane flight using calculations by a woman, Barby Canright. The U.S. quickly recruited more female computers who worked throughout World War II. Post-war, female computers were again in demand by U.S. military and they began to get more senior positions.

In the 1960s, when digital computers began to take over human computers’ jobs, the women learned to program computing machines to direct America’s space exploration; they became known as “the Rocket Girls.” Author Nathalia Holt takes readers up through 2001, noting the work done by women and their representation among the top brass of the space program.

The Rise of the Rocket Girls shouldn’t be chosen as all-class reading, but offered as an option for students interested science, math, and computers. Holt’s work is interesting but splintered. There are plenty of facts, but readers close the covers feeling they don’t really know any of these women. 

The Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles to the Moon to Mars. Nathalia Holt. ©2016. Little, Brown.  337p.

A note about book sources

 I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. They offer deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Hamilton Book has a flat postage and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.

© 2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Explosive literary nonfiction for English classes

photos of covers of three books
Three literary nonfiction books about events that changed communities.

Eruption

photo of the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Red, white, and blue suggest the national effects of the Mount St. Helens volcano.

Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens.  Steve Olson. ©2016. Norton. 299 p.

The untold story of the Mount St. Helens eruption that Steve Olson tells is not about volcanology. Olson’s book is about the choices people made before, during, and after the May 1980 eruption, and, by extension, about the choices they are making today that will influence what happens—who dies—the next time Mount St. Helens erupts.

Olson grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and although he’d gone East before the mountain blew up, he always wondered if he might have been one of the 57 people killed the morning St. Helens erupted. In Eruption, he looks at the stories of those who died and why they died.

Olson sketches the development of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest which gave the region its prosperity. Weyerhaeuser, America’s biggest lumber company, was determined to keep logging old-growth timber in the Mount St. Helens area despite the rumblings of the volcano or conservationists trying to get protected status for the old-growth timber.

When the volcano began to rumble, outsiders came in to watch: gawkers, volcanologists, pilots, radio operators, and news people. Some of them were among the 57 killed (including former President Harry S Truman) when the mountain erupted. The descriptions of how people died are necessarily horrific; most people fortunately didn’t live long enough to suffer.

Eruption explores topics in science and history classes and in current events.Volcanoes, conservation, disaster preparedness, and the health of America’s lumber industry are all timely topics. Mount Nyiragongo in Congo erupted in June and is still disrupting life there.The US is due to hear from Mount St. Helens again soon: Volcanic eruptions in the Cascade Range occur on average every 25 years, according to Olson..

Olson divides his book into seven parts (plus a prologue and epilogue). Each part is subdivided into topics which function as chapters, although some of them are under three pages long. The longest subdivisions are between 11 and 17 pages; most are much shorter.

Killing the Poormaster

Accused man in handcuffs

Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depression. Holly Metz. ©2012. Lawrence Hill Books. 308 p.

Killing the Poormaster is history that reads like a novel, keeping readers engaged and rooting for the underdog hero to triumph. Holly Metz opens the book with a three-paragraph description of the death February 25, 1938 of Harry Barck, Hoboken, New Jersey’s poormaster. The poormaster job gave him power to determine who got financial help duing the Great Depression and how much they got.

That morning in Barck’s office Joe Scutellaro asked for money to feed his family. When Barck refused, there was a scuffle. Scutellaro said Barck fell forward onto a spike used for holding papers, which was on the desk. Police said Scutellaro picked up the spike and stabbed Barck with it.

Scutellaro’s trial for Barck’s murder threw a spotlight on Hoboken’s corrupt government and the nation’s inadequate response to the needs of the jobless. Scutellaro was defended by a celebrity attorney, who turned the trial into an indictment of the American system of public welfare.

Killing the Poormaster is a literary nonfiction text with relevance to courses in the social sciences: history, social psychology, and economics. It also has connections and/or analogies to current political events.

Metz divides her book into 14 chapters plus a brief prologue and chapter-length epilogue about what happened to the main characters after the trial. Three of the 14 chapters are between 20 and 30 pages, but they are broken into sections by dingbats, so they wouldn’t be hard for students to read in two or three sittings.

The Great Halifax Explosion

Blood red sky and ocean

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. John U. Bacon. ©2017. William Morrow. 418 p.

At a cost of about $180,000, every year the citizens of Halifax, Canada, send Boston, Mass., a 50-foot Christmas tree, John U. Bacon says in his opening chapter of The Great Halifax Explosion. The tree is Halifax’s way of thanking Bostonians for coming to the Canadians’ aid when a ship loaded with six million pounds of explosives—one-fifth of the force of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima—blew up in Halifax Harbor on Dec. 6, 1917.

In subsequent chapters, Bacon relates the often-frosty relations between the US and Canada before World War I. He tells about Halifax Harbor’s response when the Titanic sank April 15, 1912, and describes the effects the world war being fought in Europe was already having on the Halifax population.

Using local people as his lens, Bacon shows the series of misjudgments that led to the explosion and other misjudgments that resulted in needless tragedies afterward. He also relates tales of heroism and many more tales of dumb luck.

In telling his story, Bacon dips into topics such as diverse as forensic science, munitions, right-of-way rules for seaways, contingency planning, and experiential learning.  Every student ought to find something interesting in Bacon’s text. What’s more, teachers should have no trouble coming up with a set of writing prompts based on the text. 

Bacon “writes tight.” His chapters average eight pages. There are plenty of direct quotations. Readers can’t just skim the text, but it’s rare to find three consecutive paragraphs that require slowing down to understand some technical information.

A note about book sources

I bought all these books from HamiltonBook.com. You won’t get the latest bestsellers there, but you get deep discounts on books that have been in print a few years. All items are new, and all the books are hardbound unless marked otherwise. Hamilton Book has a flat shipping and handling fee of $4 for an order of up to 18 books.  

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Making decisions that make sense: 3 nonfiction books

covers of featured literary nonfiction
Three very different works of literary nonfiction.

From my third quarter literary non-fiction reading, I have three paperbacks to recommend, which each use true historical accounts to illustrate each author’s thesis. None of the books is ponderous reading, but each is likely to present some challenge for teens or young adult readers, beginning with the fact that none of the three is about pleasant subjects. However, each of the books tackles an important topic and each could be used by teachers in several disciplines, either individually or as a team with each teacher contributing the perspective from their own discipline.

Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation

The Greatest Generation. Tom Brokaw. Delta, 1998. 412 pages. Paperback

Greatest generation book cover
He went overseas. She stayed behind.

The Greatest Generation is TV journalist Tom Brokaw’s tribute to the men and women who served in America’s armed forces during World War II. Brokaw presents a scrapbook-like collection of his interviews with military personnel and the families they left behind. Combat plays a minor part in their war years’ experiences.

I’d hoped to find The Greatest Generation useful for classroom use, but I’m not sure today’s high school and college students would see the characters in the same light Brokaw does.  His stories are snapshots of what would be today’s students’ great-great-grandparents. The names of most of the famous people Brokaw tells about would draw a blank stare from today’s students.

I’m not sure young people today would understand why Brokaw admires heroes who rejected the spotlight: American culture no longer values reticence. And in some ways, even to me, Brokaw’s adulation seems overly sentimental (as well as overly long).

Stories in the book that are most likely to gain traction with young people are those about people who were discriminated against during WWII: women, Blacks, and Japanese.  Because Brokaw’s work is relatively unemotional reportage, students might not find even these true stories understandable unless a savvy teacher pairs them with fictional accounts of similar situations.

Blunder by Zachery Shore

Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions. Zachary Shore. Bloomsbury, 2008. 260 p. Paperback

Cover of Shore's book "Blunder"Blunder is a book about how people think and why their thinking goes wrong, even if they are very smart people with very good intentions.  Zachary Shore approaches his topic as an historian, rather than as a cognitive psychologist, using famous (and some infamous) historical figures to show how and why leaders in fields such as government, the military, and business made bad decisions with widespread impact.

Shore devotes one chapter to each of eight different types of blunders. He gives the blunders memorable names like “Exposure Anxiety,” which he defines as the fear of being seen as weak, and “Static Cling,” the refusal to accept a changing world. Readers won’t have to look further than each week’s news to some authority figure somewhere in the world making the blunders today.

Shore draws heavily on his knowledge of 20th century events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam Conflict, and George W. Bush’s post 9/11 War on Terror.  I suspect today’s teens and young adults would have little familiarity with those events. They probably would more readily grasp stories of individuals dealing with issues of narrower impact, such as unhealthy eating or depression.

Shore devotes a final chapter to how individuals can mitigate the effects of their own blundering impulses.

Blunder would be a good book for use by classes in two or more different disciplines, such as history, psychology, and English. Such use would allow students to get direction from three perspectives about how to understand and use Shore’s insights.

Voices from the Holocaust, Jon E. Lewis, ed.

Voices from the Holocaust. Edited by Jon E. Lewis. Skyhorse, 2012. Paper. 305 pp.

Cover of Voices from the Holocaust
Concentration camp survivors freed by Allied forces.

Anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany; Hitler made it government policy.  Germans readily accepted it because they blamed Jews for their defeat in World War I. Anti-Semitism was Hitler’s way to make Germany great again.

Editor Jon E. Lewis arranges historical documents in chronological order, without comment other than to identify the writers, if known.  Beginning with the years 1933-38, the documents reveal how outsiders initially saw the SS as a sadistic type of criminal gang, only later realizing they were getting ready for a war against their enemies, including the Jews within their borders.

Part II (covering events from 1939 until Jan. 19, 1942) shows Germany setting up its extermination program. Documents in this section include Rudolf Hess’s description of the Zykon B gas trial at Auschwitz on Sept. 3, 1941, at which a sickened Himmler, who had never before seen dead people, had to be led away.

Part III is devoted to the Final Solution, 1942-1946. It includes diary accounts of deportations to concentrations camps and descriptions of conditions in the camps. When the British arrived at Bergen-Belsen, there were 35,000 unburied corpses and about 30,000 living inmates.

One of the most poignant stories in Voices is that told by Franciscek Zabecki about an incident he observed at the Treblinka Railway station in which an SS man’s dog found a baby in a thicket beside its dead mother. The dog whimpered and licked the baby, refusing to kill it. The SS beat the dog, killed the baby, and finally dominated the dog into obedience.

Voices ends with a list taken from the Nazi’s own records of the estimated number of Jews killed, listed by both country and by the percentage of the Jewish population annihilated.

It might be good to pair Anne Frank’s Diary with Voices from the Holocaust to show students that Anne Frank’s misery was a broken fingernail compared to what other Jews experienced.

what to look for in literary nonfiction
Literary nonfiction works that include illustrations are a plus.

©2020 Linda Aragoni

Literary nonfiction about slavery, Africa and ethics

covers of 3 works of literary fiction
Recommended literary nonfiction reading for 2019 third quarter

Each quarter I post brief reviews of a few books of literary nonfiction that I think teachers could use in English Language Arts classes. Some of the works have logical tie-ins with required courses in other disciplines; others would pair nicely with fictional works that tackle some of the same issues.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad: 2018. 171 p. (Note: Some copies have an alternate subtitle, “The story of the last ‘black cargo.'”
Photo of Cudjo Lewis on front coverver of Barraccoon
Barracoon
contains the first-person story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known surviving African from the last American slave ship to bring human cargo to America for sale. The slender volume tells his tale in the man’s own words, as recorded by author Zora Neale Hurston in 1927 and 1928, when Cudjo was 67 years old.

Hurston draws from Cudjo the story of his life in Africa, his enslavement, the Atlantic crossing, his experiences as a slave laborer. She uses spelling that recreates Cudjo’s pronunciation, which takes a little getting used to, but isn’t difficult to decipher.

Cudjo tells of his joy at Emancipation after he’d been enslaved five-and-half years and his grief to realize he couldn’t go back home. He talks about his life and his family in Alabama.

Besides Cudjo’s first-person account, which occupies about 100 pages, the book includes an introduction which provides information about the voyage of the Clotilda, which brought Cudjo to America, stories that Cudjo told Hurston, and a glossary.

Hurston’s first-person narrative could be paired with the author’s 1937 novel Their Eyes We Watching God, which is written from a former female slave’s point of view.  It might also be paired with Thomas Dixon Jr.’s historically significant novel The Clansman.

Blood River by Tim Butcher

Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through the World’s Most Dangerous Country by Tim Butcher. Grove Press. 2008. 363 p.Man paddles canoe in photo superinposed on map of the Congo River

Blood River is a work of literary nonfiction that John le Carré described as “a masterpiece.”

It’s author, Tim Butcher, had just been appointed Africa Correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph in 2000 when he read that the Telegraph had sent another reporter, Henry Morton Stanley of “Mr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame, to Africa more than a century earlier. That slim personal connection inspired Butcher to retrace Stanley’s more significant but now almost forgotten four-year achievement: mapping the nearly 3000-mile Congo River.

Though warned the journey is suicidal, Butcher persists. He’s arranged for a protector who turns out to be a pygmy, five feet tall and half Butcher’s weight. That’s just the first of many frightening surprises that awaited the author. By his own admission, Butcher is no macho strong guy. He is persistent, however, and quite willing to follow orders from people who know more than he does.

The Congo flows through country that in the year 2000 is far less modern than it was when Stanley was there in the 1870s. During his 44 days of travel, he visits places Stanley visited, compares what he sees to Stanley’s photographs of the same places, and tells what happened to cause the regression.

Butcher obviously did his homework before he went on the trip. There’s a wealth of information in Blood River. He writes knowledgeably about the Congo’s plant and animal life, relates stories about Joseph Conrad’s experience in the Congo, and points out places where events in The African Queen were filmed.

Blood River could be paired with Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness; both are set in the same location just about 100 years apart. Blood River explains that some historical detail that Conrad’s critics thought he made up when he wrote Heart of Darkness were actually true.

Ethical Wisdom by Mark Matousek

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good by Mark Matousek. Doubleday. 2011. 251 p.

a two-faced angel-demon image at center of front cover
Two-faced, two-minded

At age eight, when his mother gave him a blue coat which he knew she stole, Mark Matousek began a life-long quest to discover the ultimate truth: How should we live?

In Ethical Wisdom, Matousek blends research from the fields of the hard sciences and social sciences, with ideas from writers and philosophers to explain why humans do what they do.

The title not withstanding, the volume is less about what people ought to do than it is about what they actually do. Much of what Matousek has to say is directly related to human communication.  For example, he explains that “Self-control depends on language,” but shows that emotions are caught rather than linguistically transmitted.

His focus on communications  is a primary reason to use Matousek’s volume in an ELA classroom. A second reason to use it is that Matousek writes well, with careful attention to words that convey both his literal and emotional meaning. But Matousek is definitely not a typical stuffy, textbookish author: Even his bibliography is set up to be readily accessible.

The first three sections of Matousek’s book have enough hard data to be used as reading for both humanities and social science courses, if, for example, you are in a setting where students are taking courses for dual enrollment credits. The sections four and five have little scientific unpinning. They are primarily Matousek’s personal beliefs, derived largely from Eastern religions traditions. I’d not require students to read those two sections.

Most chapters in the book are under 10 pages. Finding complementary long or short fiction for students to read on topics discussed in the first three sections of  Ethical Wisdom would not be difficult.

More literary nonfiction for students

dust jackets of 3 literary nonfiction novels read 2nd quarter 2019

It’s once again time to recommend some literary nonfiction that could be used with high school teens or adult students.  I look for books that:

  • Are well-written, but not stuffy
  • Have some images in them
  • Tie-in to academic work, current events, or students’ interests
  • Can often be found in libraries
  • Readily available discounted or secondhand

Here are my three recommendations from my second quarter nonfiction reading.

South: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition

After being beat in his attempt to plant the British flag on the South Pole by a Norwegian, Sir Earnest Shackleton determined that the first expedition to cross Antarctica would be British.

South is Shackleton’s record of that heroic failure which played out in polar ice at the bottom of the world as other heroic British failures occurred in the trenches in France.

Shackleton’s record is riveting. Men suffered from cold and their own body heat, from malnutrition, injuries, and boredom.

The final third of the book, which Shackleton compiled from notes by members of separate party, lacks the impact of personal experience.

I wouldn’t recommend South as a book for all-class reading. (The paperback’s text is blurry like bad photocopies, and long paragraphs combine technical terms with British slang.)

South is, however, a book that a few students interested in science, history, geography, or psychology might dip into. The photos should interest just about anyone.

South: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition, by Sir Ernest Shackleton, ©2016 Skyhorse Publishing. 380 p. [paper]

The Disaster Profiteers

John C. Mutter was a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

That event led Mutter to study the social sciences to understand why natural disasters are disastrous in ways that have little to do with their physical consequences.

Mutter reached the conclusion,  “It is human nature more than Nature that makes disasters so terrible.”

Natural disasters do some good in, for example, destroying unsafe infrastructure. Even those “good” effects, Mutter saws, hurt the poor far more than they do the more affluent and their negative impacts affect the poor for far longer.

The Disaster Profiteers would be good literary nonfiction for older teens, particularly those in dual enrollment programs, and for adults in post-secondary training.

Mutter does a great job of making the science of natural disasters understandable. His presentation of how economists measure the scale of disasters is less readily grasped: A national economy isn’t as visual as a national disaster. But with help from some informal writing prompts, students could identify and master the big ideas.

The images in the book are primarily graphs, charts, and maps.

The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer by John C. Mutter. ©2015 St. Martin’s Press. 281 p.

Profiles in Folly

Unlike the other two literary nonfiction books discussed here, Alan Axelrod’s Profiles in Folly is a not a single story, but a collection of 35 magazine-length “cautionary tales” about bad decisions and the people who made them.

Some of the bad decisions were made by political leaders, others by businessmen, military leaders, and engineers.

The stories cover decisions from 1250 BC (the Trojan Horse) to 2005 (George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina). Topics include smoking, the space shuttle, planned obsolescence, and the Pony Express.

Profiles in Folly would lend itself to a half-year or full-year high school project involving multiple faculty who assign students certain of the chapters to read, discuss, and write about in the context of a particular class.

There are no images in the book.

 Profiles in Folly: History’s Worst Decisions And Why They Went Wrong  by Alan Axelrod. ©2008. Sterling Publishing. 358 p. [paper]


I bought this quarter’s recommended books  at hamiltonbook.com for less than $8 apiece.

 

 

 

Recommended reading: Religious Literacy

I began last week suggesting literary nonfiction titles that teachers might find useful to have  of teens and adults read in various courses. Today’s recommendation, however, is a book for educators.

Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t is literary nonfiction aimed primarily at the education community, broadly interpreted to include not only public-school teachers and administrators but also school boards, college administrators, and legislators at the state and federal levels.

Prothero discusses the extent of Americans’ ignorance of religions (including their own) as a civic problem. Ignorance of The King James Bible, for example, renders students incapable of understanding allusions found in virtually every type of fiction and nonfiction.

Prothero argues that religious illiteracy is not only handicapping but downright dangerous. America’s foreign policy is being set by people who have little understanding of the pivotal role religion plays in other cultures’ attitudes and actions, he says.

He contends that Americans cannot confront the challenges facing the nation today—domestic as well as foreign— without an understanding of the role of religion in American and world history.

Prothero refutes popular misconceptions about what legally can and cannot be taught in public schools, and tackles the issue of whether a student can refuse to participate in the pledge of allegiance.

The book includes an 85-page “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” and a religious literacy quiz with answers.

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero (Harper One. ©2007. 296 p.)

Recommended literary nonfiction reading

3 literary nonfiction books

Note to readers: This post has been revised, I hope for the better.  When I published it April 5, 2019, Internet gremlins duplicated, deleted, and rearranged elements until they the content was unrecognizable.  

Although short literary nonfiction has its place in the academic curriculum, if we are going to attempt to encourage students to become lifelong learners we must have them read some book-length literary nonfiction each year.

The first quarter of 2019 I made a conscious effort to read literary nonfiction that some students might find worth reading. I looked for:

  • tie-ins to courses, current events, and/or students’ experiences
  • good writing that wasn’t stuffy
  • books with at least some images in them
  • books that are widely available through libraries
  • books that are available new at under $10

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip is lighthearted history, fun to read, packed with bits and pieces of historical fact, and illustrated with 1950s photos and cleverly drawn maps.

On Jan. 20, 1953, after Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as the 34th president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president, when back home to Independence, Missouri, as an ordinary citizen.

A few months later Truman got a letter inviting him to speak to the Reserve Officers Association on June 26 in Philadelphia. It seemed the ideal opportunity for Truman and his wife, Bess, to go East to see their daughter, visit old friends, and enjoy the open road.

Truman put the suitcases in the car and the couple took off by themselves, Truman at the wheel, Bess riding shotgun, keeping track of every fill-up, and telling her husband not to drive so fast.

Matthew Algeo uses his pleasant, often funny, nonfiction narrative as a lens through which to examine not just 1950s America, but the way the United States has changed since then.

The book could be used for literary nonfiction reading in social studies, English, art, and graphic design classes.

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo. (Chicago Review Press, ©2009. 264 p.) 

The Fever of 1721

The Fever of 1721 ties together famous names from American history—Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams—using the story of a Bostonian merchant seaman whose crew had developed smallpox on the trip from England.

By the time John Gore’s brig reached Boston Harbor, one sailor had died, six others were nearly recovered, and Gore had begun showing smallpox symptoms.Gore was dead and buried within 10 days.

The government concealed Gore’s death for fear of creating a panic and for fear of an embargo that would ruin Boston’s economy.

From that beginning, Stephen Coss goes on to discuss the history and politics of vaccination, American-British relations, the history of American newspapers, religion in the colonies, and how the political ramifications of the epidemic laid the groundwork for the American Revolution.

The Fever of 1721 could be used as literary nonfiction reading in English, journalism, history/social studies, science, and health classes. The 1721 controversy surrounding vaccination for smallpox could be compared with the 2019 controversy around measles vaccination.

The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. ©2016. 350 p.) 

Passages to America

Between 1892 and 1954, two million child immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Another one million child immigrants were processed through the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay between 1910 and 1940.

In Passages to America, developmental psychologist Emmy E. Werner presents the recollections of some of those people about their immigrant experience as children between the ages of ages four and 16.

Werner organizes the histories by population groups including those from the British Isles, Italians, Scandinavians, Armenians, and escapees from Nazi Germany.

Werner’s book is literary nonfiction for a general audience.   Although Werner was an academic, her prose is clean, clear, and easy to understand.

Passages to America could be literary nonfiction reading in social studies and English classes. Virtually every American student would find some personal connection to some immigrant group mentioned in the text. The pre-1955 immigrant experience offers opportunities for comparisons to the experiences of 21st century immigrants.

Passages to America: Oral Histories of Child Immigrants from Ellis Island and Angel Island by Emmy E. Werner (Potomac Books. ©2009. 177 p.)

In case you’re curious

I bought all three of the books mentioned here at hamiltonbook.com. I got Passages to America in hardback, Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure and The Fever of 1721 in paperback.

I have a couple more volumes of literary nonfiction to tell you about next week.

How are you using literary nonfiction?

I’d like to hear from English teachers, particularly those who teach grades 7-12 and dual-credit courses about how their schools are using literary fiction in their academic programs.
If you have experience using literary nonfiction in English class, or if you work in a school where other departments have taken the lead in using literary nonfiction, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Drop me a note via the contact form on yctwriting.com or send an email to me, linda [at] yctwriting.com

Literary nonfiction reading: The Warmth of Other Suns

During the fourth quarter of 2018, I dipped into a couple of nonfiction books that required more attention than I could give them at the time. The only one I read with anything like the attention it deserves is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

The Warmth of Other Suns is the sort of nonfiction book the folks who devised the Common Core State Standards had in mind for students to read: The Warmth of Other Suns is truly literary nonfiction.

Wilkerson tells the story of the migration of six million southern blacks to the North in the period between World War I and 1970 through the experiences of three of those people.

Ida Mae Gladney, an unremarkable black woman in rural Mississippi, migrated in 1937 to Chicago where she remained true to her traditional southern roots—family, church, hard work, neighborliness—and earned the respect of even the criminals and addicts who repudiated her values.

George Starling, denied the education he wanted in Florida, migrated to Harlem in 1945, where he took the only job he could find: working as a railway porter on routes that took him regularly back into the Jim Crow South. Lacking his work ethic, his family fell apart, becoming statistics in the sociological studies and inside stories in newspapers.

Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, already a doctor and former Army surgeon when he left Mississippi in 1953 to set up practice among the black community in California, found the only way he could attract patients was by pandering to the blacks’ ideas of what success meant—a white Cadillac and flashy clothes—and giving personal attention white doctors were too busy to provide.

Wilkerson interweaves the stories of these three individuals with the broader historical picture of race relations in the United States and the socioeconomic changes that were occurring during the twentieth century.

One thing Wilkerson doesn’t do is find scapegoats.

There are plenty of people who share in the blame for the causes of the Great Migration and plenty who share in the blame for its consequences, including those who participated in it.

Wilkerson writes clearly, using the most common terms that will accomplish her aims. Hers is a scholarly work without scholarly pretentiousness.

It is also a work of journalism.

Wilkerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing when she was Chicago Bureau Chief for The New York Times, sent hours talking to people, visiting in their homes, eating with them, going to church with them, retracing the routes they took out of the South. From all she sees and hears, she selects telling details.

Isabel Wilkerson.The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  Random House. ©2010. 622 p. ISBN:9780679444329

(FYI, during the third quarter of 2018, I was reading and writing reviews the bestselling novels of 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983, which  I’ll be posting at GreatPenformances  between Jan.12 and May 28 this year.)

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni