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.