Man vs. Nonfiction: Mike Fields chronicles his reading adventure

Thursday, September 13, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:01 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 14, 2012
Mike Fields, senior information technology associate at the Columbia Public Library, is on a mission to read one book from every shelf of the nonfiction section in the library. He reads nonfiction instead of fiction so he "has the chance to learn something."

COLUMBIA -- It all began with a debate with his wife over the pros and cons of e-readers.

Mike and Kristen Fields have often discussed how they will go about introducing their 5-month-old daughter, Emma, to literature. For Mike, a self-proclaimed “techie,” using an e-reader in place of printed books seemed like a practical choice. Kristen, however, had other thoughts, and insisted that while their daughter is still a child, it was best to read to her using old-fashioned paper.


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After much thought, Mike Fields decided that he wanted Emma to grow up in an environment where having literature on hand was normal and expected.

“I kind of thought about it and realized that it is probably a good idea not to have these tablets and phones and things around her while she is still young,” he said.

Fields decided that a project that would require him to bring home printed books would be a great way to show his daughter that reading without electronics can be just as rewarding as reading with them. He figured the best way to accomplish this goal was to lead by example.

“It was all about getting this idea stuck in her head that it’s OK to read books, it’s OK to sit down and have an actual book to read,” he said. “That is something that I really want her to grow up with.”

Fields is five months into his quest to read one book from each of the nearly 2,850 shelves of nonfiction books at the Columbia Public Library. His first pick was checked out in April, and since then he's made eight other selections from topics in statistics to archery.

He chronicles his progress on a blog titled Man Vs Nonfiction, where he keeps track of his unique, unusual and sometimes surprising finds.  

Fields, 33, realizes the scope of his undertaking, but he has no set deadline for finishing. He said he will continue for as long as it takes, making it more about the journey than the destination.

“If I need to renew books to get through them, then I can,” he said. “I have plenty of years, hopefully, to continue on into retirement.”

To ensure that there is a variety of subjects, and that all sections are equally represented, he has maps of the shelves to keep track of where he has been and where he needs to go.

Fields also has a precise mathematical formula behind all his choices. Three random number generators provide him with a section within the nonfiction area, a row within the section and a shelf of books within that row. The rest is left to his discretion.

“I think that is what’s going to save me, is that ultimately it is my decision,” Fields said. “I have the option to choose a book to read from whatever is on that shelf.”

This system is ideal for discovery and already there have been books that have emerged as surprise and welcome favorites.

Two, in particular, stand out in his mind.

The first, called “Tracks in the Sea: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Mapping of the Oceans” by Chester G. Hearn, charts the history behind the first mapping expeditions of the world’s oceans. The second, a book on the statistical revolution of the 20th century titled “The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century” by David Salsburg, came as a surprise and reminded Fields of another reason why he was doing this project.

“It was very interesting, and a great example of a book that I never would have read if it wasn’t for this project,” Fields said. “There will be sections that will be difficult, but they will give me the opportunity to expand into areas I wouldn’t normally read into.”

It hasn’t all been wonderful discoveries, though. Fields recently returned a selection after reading his self-imposed minimum of 50 pages, a rule that he put in place to guarantee each selection gets a fair chance. This rule also keeps him from getting bogged down with books that he finds hard to get through. It also allows him to move on to new and different topics. 

He has other rules. He can have up to three books checked out simultaneously, and there is no time limit for each book.

The minimum reading time per day started at one hour, but to accomodate work and family time it was later adjusted to 15 minutes.

Fields reads mostly at his desk in the library, where he works as a senior associate in the information technology department.

“Part of the stigma of being an IT guy is that you’re always connected,” Fields said. “So a lot of the time I will sit at my desk and read and eat my lunch while keeping track of work, making sure that everything is running smoothly.”

Fields quickly realized that working in a library has many perks when it comes to his project, including support from co-workers and access to a wide variety of literary resources.

Lauren Williams works as a public services librarian at the library and serves as the digital branch coordinator, which includes oversight of the library’s blog for adults, DBRL Next. She has been enthusiastic and supportive about Field’s project from the beginning.

After Fields emailed Williams the link to his blog, she visited it and was immediately intrigued.

“When I visited his blog for the first time my thought was that this is awesome and also kind of crazy,” Williams said. “I just love that he is very much a tech guy, but that he has sort of this general interest in books and the library itself … that is just great dedication. It’s awesome and wildly ambitious, but also very fun.”

Williams included an introduction to his endeavor in a post on DBRL Next with plans to check in with him every month or so. She also plans to provide readers with lists of his selections and links to the library catalog records for those who are interested in reading what he reads.

The buzz generated by both blogs has given Fields publicity, and traffic on his blog is growing. Most readers come from within the U.S., but a few viewers are international. But Fields says it was never about getting an audience.

“It is not really about how many people I can reach or anything like that,” he said. “This is just something that I really wanted to try, and something that I am doing for my daughter.”

Williams hopes that Fields' blog will increase awareness of the wide variety of books that can be found in the Columbia Public Library’s collection.

“I am always just surprised and amazed when I walk through the various sections and find something that I wouldn’t ever think existed,” she said. “Some people usually just think of a library as a place for fiction, or for students doing research, but there are so many fascinating reads.”

Fields is excited to see where Man Vs Nonfiction takes him next. Will it be art history or physics? Cooking or calligraphy?

Fields has come far from his earlier belief that e-readers make for the best reading experience.

“It would make this whole project a lot easier, but I’m finding that I really enjoy the idea of actually having a physical book," he said. "I still read on my e-reader, but it’s just not the same feeling of just pressing a button. I just want my daughter to know that technology is not the only thing there is.”

A fondness and appreciation for actual copies of books versus e-readers has become something that he and Kristen Fields share — and hope to pass on to their children.

“I hope that looking back on this, our daughter will understand the importance of reading and that it is something that continues on,” Kristen Fields said. “We want to instill in our daughter, and any future children that we may have, the importance of reading.”

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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Priscilla Koeplin September 13, 2012 | 7:08 a.m.

A great goal; however, I have learned much in my more than 65 years of reading fiction.

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