Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Booknote: The Readers' Advisory Guide to Historical Fiction

Jennifer S. Baker, The Readers' Advisory Guide to Historical Fiction. Chicago: ALA Editions, 2015. ISBN: 9780838911655. 

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: readers' advisory, library science
Format: trade paperback
Source: My local public library

I read this in the interest of keeping up with my skills as librarian and readers' adviser. This is an ALA book, so it is fairly similar to other RA books that ALA publishes. I will admit that historical fiction is not a genre that I usually read. For the most part, if I want to read history, I go read a real nonfiction history book. However, I get that some readers find historical fiction appealing, so I read this in order to learn more about the genre and to have some knowledge in case someone comes asking me about it. In addition, I discovered a book or two I have enjoyed in the past such as The Name of the Rose and The Killer Angels that could fall in this genre. From reading this book, I learned that historical fiction can be a diverse and very flexible genre.

Still, the book's text is a bit on the dry side compared to other guides like this I have read. It reads a bit much like a textbook. So while I appreciated the learning, it's basically a book to consult now and then. For librarians with little knowledge of the genre, it does provide a good start.

3 out of 5 stars.

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Some additional reading notes:

From the RA series introduction, what a book in this series is designed to do:

"They help advisors become familiar with fiction genres and nonfiction subjects, especially those they don't personally read. They provide ready-made lists of 'need to know' elements such as key authors and read-alikes, as well as tips on how to keep up with trends and important new books and titles" (ix). 

At its most basic, this book accomplishes just that.

How "historical fiction" is defined in the book:

"For our purposes, historical fiction is defined as novels (and sometimes short stories) with settings from a historical period at least fifty years  prior to the work's publication or occurring before the author's memory" (1).

A resource to check out mentioned in the book:

What can you do if you can't "figure it out on the spot"?

"I try very hard to find something on the shelf for readers to take home and then offer to send them a personalized reading list. This buys me more time, perhaps a day or two, to come up with more suggestions. To create a reading list for a specific reader, I make a list of about five suitable titles; write short annotations, including reasons I think he or she will like each one; then send the reader that document. Personalized reading lists are time consuming but can be a good option to fall back on when you're flummoxed. A good strategy to prevent going blank is training yourself to be more a more versatile readers' advisor. Read several benchmark books in your least familiar genres and know which reference tools can help you in each (24-25). 

Those last two sentences above are why I read books like this one, to build up a bit of my RA knowledge in areas I am not as strong in.

Something to keep in mind:

"Subjects usually touched on in historical fiction don't always match Library of Congress subject headings, and it can be tricky to find good topical historical fiction quickly" (117).

A pro tip:

"Consider making your own subject book lists for those topics you are repeatedly asked about as part of your historical fiction readers' advisory preparedness training!" (117).

On the question of "can you really learn history from historical fiction?" The author says yes, but up to a point. People who read in this genre often say,

". . .that they can learn history painlessly by reading historical fiction" (137). 

However, even if those books are historically accurate,  you can miss details and elements of cultural experience and a historical time. Personally, this is a big reason I prefer to just read history, but I can see how for many folks this genre can be a start.

The author then argues that for RA in this genre, it is important to engage readers with works that have accurate historicity. In addition,

"Readers' advisors should, however, point out the advantages of reading nonfiction material to augment the readers' learning in areas that fiction doesn't pursue" (137). 

Keep in mind that you offer, suggest, and let the reader take it from there.

Some pro tips on how to build your RA reputation as a resource for others to get reading suggestions:

  • "Host author readings and events at your library.
  • Run several book discussion groups at your library and/or in the community.
  • Write regular book reviews for your local paper and library newsletter.
  • Post your own staff picks on your website and put your picture by it" (223). 
Using Twitter for on-the-spot RA also works.

"Readers' advisors must take advantage of social media as a way to reach readers and increase community awareness of our libraries' relevance" (223).

The author also suggests for readers' advisors to keep track of what they read and even have reading plans. For me, this is why I write about what I read in my journal and write a few reviews online to share. I do enjoy sharing books with others. On making a reading plan:

"To create a personal reading plan for historical fiction, identify your genre weaknesses, and make a plan to familiarize yourself with the best titles in each area of interest. Your personal reading plan can be as simple or complex as you like" (237). 

That's applicable to any genre by the way. It also means you may read outside your comfort zone, and that is OK.

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This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

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