Monday, July 5, 2010

An ugly confession

At an Independence Day party yesterday, an old friend asked me: "Have you read any good history books recently?" My embarrassed response, "No." That really is pretty pathetic for one who loves history, has a couple of degrees in it, and who teaches it.

So, why is it that I don't read much history? Three reasons:

a) Too many essays from students. I have to evaluate a lot of writing, which means I read a lot of history as retold by my students. More importantly, I'm just reading a lot which does burn me out.

b) The other things I teach require me to keep up with the news, so I spend much more time keeping atop current events. I even have a spiraling loop of reading and re-reading news -

  • The Inquirer (my first draft of gathering news)
  • Local newspaper websites (the nuts and bolts of what affects me)
  • Op-Ed from Washington Post and New York Times (the most helpful sources)
  • The Week and The Economist (these help me retrieve what I missed in the previous week)
The third reason is sinister, and you might not wish to read it. It's such a powerful factor, I won't even let my students in on it.

c) One of my final professors in my masters program at Villanova urged us to never spend more than two hours reading any historical monograph. His point: if we're nearing the end of a masters program, we're in a position to more efficiently use our time. Instead of reading cover-to-cover, start a timer. Then, read the introduction and conclusion of the book. Then read the introduction and conclusion of each chapter. Be writing the whole time. Then, with whatever is left of the two hours, just read what seems most germaine to his thesis. Do this, that professor advised, and you know enough of the author's argument to move on in life.

I haven't read a single historical book cover-to-cover since he told us that. His advice was delivered in the fall of 2002.

Sadly, all these factors promote skimming and partial reading. More on that later.

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