Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

I heard Philbrick read at Levenger's the other week, so I got sucked in to buying a copy of this nonfiction bestseller. He's not an artistic writer, but he tells a compelling story and he hits a lot of historical notes that I never got in elementary school (which was the last time I learned about the Plymouth colony). Especially interesting is his focus on the Native American tribes who first aided and then warred with the Pilgrims (or in several cases, were warred on by the Pilgrims). He (or his publisher) titled the book brilliantly; a lot of readers seem to be drawn to boat stories but the Mayflower is really only the start of the story. But it seems to me a more accurately titled Plymouth, would not sell nearly as well.

Mostly though I want to point out that Philbrick was an English major and indeed holds an MA in American Literature from Duke (if I remember right). So for all of you English major/writers--fiction is not your only option. And it's certainly not your most lucrative option. Ross King is another good example of someone who studied English/writing only to become a big seller as a nonfiction writer (focusing on art and architecture).

All of this reminds me of how well nonfiction sells compared to ficiton. I really enjoy nonfiction, but a book like Mayflower kind of reminds me of watching television, where I am a fairly passive receiver of information. The book is summary and fact, though told in a narrative fashion, and while I found the facts interesting, it's not like I had to decipher them for meaning or try to puzzle out the storyline. Philbrick told me things straightforwardly and I believed him. I know history isn't quite so simple, but I wonder if this is part of the appeal of popular history books. You're learning, but you're not necessarily challenged.

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