Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

May 5, 2013

Adventures in the non-fiction world

— — As I have gotten older I have noticed my taste in reading materials has changed from the more fanciful flights of youth to the cold-hard facts of the non-fiction section.

When I was a kid, I hardly ever checked anything out of the non-fiction section of the library unless it was materials needed for a research paper or school project. I found most non-fiction books — even those aimed at my age group —boring and tedious to work through.

Endless amounts of facts and figures didn’t exactly appeal to my imaginative side and my general hatred of all things math led me away from the non-fiction section as well. All of the boys in class gobbled up the books about cars and sports and some of the girls liked the books about horses, kittens and the like, but I always cringed when a teacher assigned us to read non-fiction books as part of our regular reading classes.

I only had enough of an attention span for magazine-style articles rather than entire books delving into the life cycle of the frog. I might have been interested in more non-fiction if there was more of the true crime I now enjoy as an adult, but I think it would be pretty hard to write a true crime book for kids.

I’ve always been a history buff, but those biographies of historical figures always seemed bland to me. I would read stories based on historical figures, fictional works that combined both fact and the author’s imagination to bring a person back to life in a way I could relate to. I usually found these fictional biographies much more satisfying than the truth, which was often dark and dismal when it came to the most notable and notorious figures in history.

Particular favorites of mine were the late E.L. Koningsburg’s “A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver,” which fictionally chronicled the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. 

I suppose it may seem odd that someone who loathed non-fiction as a kid grew up to work in an industry where writing non-fiction is the main goal. While a newspaper is hardly a biography of Winston Churchill or a recounting of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the same principles of research, accuracy, interviewing and relaying actual events in a way the public can read, digest and comprehend is very much the same.

Perhaps it is the love of news that has helped me develop my newfound taste for the non-fiction side of the library. I have noticed a lot of the non-fiction authors I admire approach their subjects in very much the same manner a reporter would report the story. Whereas my assignments generally focus on what is happening in the here and now, they have to be reporters that go back in time, to try to unravel the who, what, when, where, why and how long after the fact. 

In fact, newspapers seem to be one of the major sources a lot of these authors rely on to tell their factual stories. Being able to read how other newspapers and other news writers from other eras covered murders, disasters, and daily events interests me as well. I find it gives me a real historical perspective on how the people living at the time of these events felt about them and how journalism has changed throughout the years. I don’t think I could get away with a 65-word lede on a murder story nor would our paper publish some of the gruesome art I have seen splashed across front pages during the late 1800s.

This year alone, my journeys through the world of non-fiction have taken me on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe to the old Harvey Houses of the west, to the magical world of the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair, days spent with famed Sioux medicine man Black Elk, the darkest depths of the Congo under Belgian rule and into the lavish drawing rooms of four English ladies during the Georgian period who studied French philosophers, influenced world politics and affected Irish rebellion in a period when most people thought women did not have the capacity to learn how to read or write. There are many more factual adventures I have stacked up and waiting to take on my bookshelf in the months ahead.

Sure, even as an adult I still like to slip into the fantasy worlds of Narnia, Hogwarts and most recently Katniss Everdeen’s Panem. However, I have come to realize that the fantastic things and people of the real world can be just as amazing and entertaining as fictional realities crafted by creative authors.

Kate Coil is a reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at kcoil@bdtonline.com.

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