Thursday, May 20, 2010

Will the Internet Replace Nonfiction Books?

This is a question I am personally asked on a regular basis, as well as a question I have heard debated all over the, well, the Internet. May I just say that my answer to this question is a solid and emphatic NO!

I actually had a teacher ask me this question during a school visit, in front of a room of 100+ kids. And no, he wasn’t setting me up for a teaching moment. He was serious. There are long and complicated answers as to why the Internet—with its fast-action access to loads of information and its highly touted Wikipedia—is a vastly different beast than a nonfiction book, but I’m going to focus on the short answer.

Context. Is one word too short of an answer? How about: readers need context. Still not enough? Let’s try this. What the Internet provides are quick answers to straightforward questions such as, “What roles other than Rachel from Glee has Lea Michele performed?” That we can find out with the click of a mouse. But to read a whole story, which puts an episode of history or a person’s life in context for readers and includes nuance and perspective and gets into the details and nitty gritty of a subject—for that, you need writers…and the books they write.

Nonfiction books, especially when done well, tell a story. Good nonfiction writers employ techniques used in fiction—point of view, narrative, perspective…the list goes on.

Nonfiction writers gather reams of information, digest all of it, and put a story back together for themselves and for their readers, making sense of what happened as they go. They question sources, triple and quadruple check information, put layers of information together, track down new primary source material if possible, discover missing pieces to the puzzle, and push, push, push until they have exhausted all their resources and told a story that has a narrative arc that includes the context of what was happening in the world during the place and time of the story.

Writing—and reading—a great nonfiction book is NOTHING like finding information on the Internet. Nothing. I do believe that nonfiction books are alive and well.

8 comments:

Vicki Cobb said...

Well said, Tanya! All of us use the internet for research and we all know its limitations well. I've been on line since 1991 when I could find some really good material because the internet was used primarily by scientists. Today there is way TMI a mile wide and an inch deep and it takes hours to wade through the products of a search to find those really good leads worth following up on. Nonfiction authors are excellent researchers and are in a position to know the limitations of the web. If we aren't drowning in this sea of information, it's only because we have well-honed survival skills. Children who use the web to search for, cut and paste information haven't got a chance.

Jim Randolph said...

This school librarian agrees. There are some reference books that may go away, but the things being done in nonfiction kids books today are A-MAZE-ING and I'm loving them. No WAY are they going away an time soon. Not in my library.

Mechele said...

I love nonfiction ... I wish I got more of it submitted for review ... I think kids and YAs enjoy reading about vampires and wizards, but they also love finding out about REAL people via biographies, and I think we forget that sometimes ... as a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on about Helen Keller, and reread the same when I couldn't find anything more ... kids of today are no different ....

Mechele
Mechele R. Dillard
Atlanta Young Adult Literature Examiner, Examiner.com

CC said...

Well said.

Humans crave the narrative. Non fiction stories be they in books, plays, poems, dance, art, movies are (or can be) enhanced by the internet. I think the internet helps wet the appetite for more.

Loreen Leedy said...

Factoids are not nonfiction.

Linda Zajac said...

I find that the only really thought provoking nonfiction on the internet comes from articles that were initially published in magazines. Online news, Wikipedia and most other internet references are basically statements of fact. But good nonfiction books can certainly leave the reader pondering.

Moggypie said...

Hear, hear. I use the Internet frequently as I write nonfiction for kids and adults, and it's excellent for looking up random stats and figures and basic info (square mileage of Kentucky! State bird of Louisiana! that sort of thing), but when I need depth and breadth, unless I'm looking at a newspaper, magazine, organization, or library website, I just don't find it by Googling (though one will find the same exact phrase repeated ad nauseum on various trivia, factoid, ask-a-question sorts of sites). It dismays me that teachers at my child's school accept Wikipedia as a legitimate source for their reports--I could understand that as one among several sources, but not the only one. And that my own child sighs heavily if I suggest she use my extensive library instead of just Googling. I think the announcements of the imminent death of nonfiction are greatly exaggerated. Glad that others agree :)

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

There are good web sites just as there are good books. But yes, I don't know of any sites that offer rich children's nonfiction - but one day soon, that will come. (Maybe run by someone on this site!) We all know the pluses to Internet content - a site can be updated much quicker than a book, for example. I do think that if any kind of book is Last (Print) Book Standing, it will be picture books. But going forward, as torchbearers for nonfiction, I feel we have a responsibility to be thinking of both books and multimedia as we create. (Film didn't kill theater. TV didn't kill radio. The Internet will not kill books; it WILL change the what and how, though.) Whether we like it or not, the world will demand it - and if we embrace it rather than resist, we can do wonderful things.