I was rather startled by a fellow student admitting at our history post-grad seminar the other night that she has only read one history book from cover to cover. Quite apart from her- well, is bravery the right word?- in disclosing this, I was surprised that the technique had obviously served her well enough to bring her to postgraduate studies at all.
I can barely bring myself not to finish a fiction book, but there are times when I hunt-and-peck my way through a non-fiction book using the index, as she said she did. Undergraduate courses encourage chapter-only reading by the handbooks they use and the links they provide to online readings, which are in turn circumscribed by academic copyright regulations. Conventions of academic writing like abstracts and keywords are an open invitation to browsing, and the demands of word limits require whole tomes to be noted but dismissed with a footnote, or a doff of the argumentative cap in passing.
But in areas that directly impinge and overlap with my own thesis, not only do I feel as if I should read the whole book, but I want to read it to pick up on the nuances of the argument, how it is framed, and where I want to distinguish myself. These things don’t lie at the level of the fact, easily pinned down in an index entry, but instead permeate the work as a whole. They’re built into the chapter structure of the work and they’re flagged in the introduction and burnished further in the conclusion. I want to be part of the conversation with other historians who are saying the things I want to hear- I want to hear the whole conversation facing them directly, not just snippets and muttered asides .
I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about the overarching structure of a historical work. The book that my fellow-student had read (Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers) has very short chapters and it was suggested that perhaps it was this quality that added to its readability. Even though, as you may have gathered, I think Dancing with Strangers is a wonderful book, I am not usually enamoured of short chapters. I’ll count Clendinnen as an exception but too many chapters to my way of thinking often suggests that the historian has not stepped sufficiently far away from the argument to see its broader contours. But it can go too far the other way too. One of the things that disconcerted me a little with John Hirst’s Convict Society and its Enemies was the imbalance in the chapter structure with one very long chapter comprised of several sub-sections. On the one hand, this was entirely appropriate as they were elaborations on the central argument ; but on the other hand, as a reader it felt rather unbalanced and unwieldy.
I am usually grateful for the Part structure (i.e. Part I, Part II) of a book that traces the trajectory of the argument at its broadest level. And even though it can be clunky and contrived in less skilled hands, I like an opening up and rounding off at the end of each chapter. While I like to be nudged into reading the next chapter, the use of cliff-hangers can be melodramatic if not handled well.
I felt a little sorry for my fellow-student that her appreciation of history was so utilitarian. I don’t only read history related to my thesis, as you can probably tell and no doubt much to the chagrin of my supervisors. On the other hand, I’d like to think (and I think they would agree) that when a historian, or any reader for that matter, reads another historian’s work it’s not just for the facts alone. Among other things, it’s for sitting back and watching how they write their history: how they set up their question; how they keep it moving along and how they project themselves as an authorial voice (a topic for another post one day).