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Sunday 31 May 2015

First thoughts on narrative reporting

I just finished reading The Mayor of Aihara, a biography of a man named Aizawa from rural Japan derived from 1885-1925 of his daily journal. It was the first history book I've read in six years.

I read it because I wanted to get a sense of how non-fiction is written outside of the sciences. The content was good, but it was the style I was looking for, which turned out to be a 160 pages of narrative sandwiched between two 20-page blocks of analysis and commentary.

The introductory chapter discusses the limitations of the biography as a view into the life of the Japanese as a whole. It also gives some general context of the world that Aizawa lived in.

The next five chapters cover blocks of Aizawa's life. Events within each chapter are told mostly in chronological order. There is some jumping around to help organize the material into something like story arcs, except that it's almost all about one person.

In other places, details that the biography author couldn't possibly have known are included, such as the details of Aizawa's birth, and the reasoning behind the local police officer having a bicycle.

Sometimes the author's interpretations are injected, such as that Aizawa was mostly unaware of the plight of the tenant farmers in his village, and that he cared more about his family than was typical. (In the conclusion chapter, some of these assumptions are justified.)

These aspects gave the biography more cohesion as a story, with clearer connections between cause and effect, than Aizawa's life likely had in reality. I didn't mind much because it made the material easier to read, track, and remember.

Still, the reporting is subjective, not just where necessary, but also where the author could improve the work's narrative quality without sacrificing much accuracy. Contrast that to scientific reporting : when doing a chemistry experiment properly, every scientist should produce identical lab notes and the resultant reports should provide the same information regardless of who produced them. If someone else were to examine Aizawa's journal, even if they had the same background in Japanese history as the biography author, they would produce a biography with different information.

This focus on narrative in providing facts is perplexing but the rationale is visible.

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