Vast Early America


Karin Wulf

Month: January 2018

Efficient Reading

This blog post’s real title is “How to Gut a (Scholarly) Book in 5 Almost-easy Steps,” but I kind of can’t bear “gut” as a verb, even though I’ve used the phrase for years to describe efficient reading.

Not sure about efficiency.  But she does look a little like Clyde, one of the Omohundro Institute’s excellent mascots.

The premise of efficient reading is that graduate students in particular need to get their heads around a huge (I”ll leave “vast” for my next post–on the seminar I’m teaching this semester) volume of scholarship, and that’s just not possible without some sharp strategy and canny tactics.  A second premise is that when you’re trying to learn a field, getting a sense of the major arguments, methods, and sources is the key rather than the details.  Doing research or reading in your area of speciality is different, and calls for different strategy and tactics.

I’ve seen graduate students struggle with a heavy reading load, and I’ve seen them use various methods to try and lighten that load.  One is to not make it through the reading, which is obviously not ideal.  (Understatement.)  I’ve also seen some use book reviews as a substitute.  Also not ideal, but for reasons I’ll explain below.  And I’ve seen students sacrifice a lot to make it through every last page, and sometimes (often?) that trade-off (especially with sleep and general health) wasn’t a wise one.

The reason students do this are many, but among them are a sense of anxiety about their ignorance.  I don’t think they believe me when I say that the more you know, the better perspective you’ll have on just how little you know.  Plenty of clever people have found ways to phrase that.  Earlier this month astrophysicist Adam Frank described for NPR how important ignorance is in a world that seems increasingly casual about expertise and “alternative facts.”  It might seem counter-intuitive, he noted, but by exposing the limits of our own and others’ knowledge it clarifies where expertise lies and has been achieved.  Get used to being ignorant because it’s not only okay, it’s the natural state when you’re leaning.  The helpful bit here for graduate students is the same, I think, as it is for me.  It’s not to say that we will never achieve knowledge, even expertise, but that there will always be limits to it if we’re curious about the world.  If we think that learning is not only important but exciting and interesting then–yay!–we’re in for a lifetime of acknowledging our (relative) ignorance.

But to the heart of this brief post.  My method for efficient reading is TICCN.  I’m referring here to reading a book, but I use the same basic method for an article.

T = Title and structure.

I = Introduction.

C = Conclusion.

C = Chapters.

N = Notes.

Title and structure may be self-evident, but I’m surprised how often or how quickly, as critical readers, we pass over a book’s title.  And just as telling, sometimes more so, are the chapter (and section) titles and structure.   Reading an Introduction for the articulation of the thesis is pretty basic, but it’s worth noting that you need to do that intentionally.  This is where the author wants you to know where her argument relates to other scholarship, how it contributes to and challenges work in the field.  Which field or fields does she think her work is best speaking to or with?  How is she positioning her work vis a vis established scholarship?    Emerging scholarship?  Particular methods and theoretical positions?  The conclusion is next for me because I want to know whether the author in fact ends where she meant to end up.

Reading the introduction and conclusion of each chapter, then, is the next step in assessing the argument’s development.  It’s also a way to assess which chapters carry which burden of the argument.   Sometimes it’s clear that particular chapters are more consequential than others in moving the argument ahead, and then it’s important to pay particular attention to the evidence that’s marshaled there.  I try to skim the notes for each chapter to understand when the type or volume of evidence changes.  This is not to suggest that more traditional, textual evidence is reflective of a chapter’s significance (either for the book, or more generally speaking).  It might be that the most important argument of the book comes from a particularly revealing analysis of a single source– or interpretation of previous scholarship’s reliance on same.  It is to note that attention to how an author marshals evidence can be, along with primary argument and scholarly positioning, the most important thing you take from an efficient reading.

And no, I don’t always read this way.  For work that’s in my research area, and when I’m reading for the joy of reading history (which I try to do regularly), I read more deeply and thoroughly.  But thinking historiographically, getting a sense of how evidence and argument are related within a book (or essay), and how those relate to other scholarship, I find pretty well served by this approach.

The reason I don’t recommend reading reviews as a method is because the best reviews, in my opinion as a longtime and kind of intense book review editor, are not a summary of the book at hand.  The best reviews are a intellectual convening of author and reviewer, with distinct perspectives and aims.   Last year I wrote about Annette Gordon-Reed’s review of Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016) as a model of the form.

Book reviewing is the best kind of thinking work, or at least in almost a dozen years as a book review editor that’s what I tried to sell to reviewers as the primary benefit of their labors. Reading is never passive. The act of reading is always an exchange between text and reader; as a reviewer, you read with the outcome of that exchange more explicitly in mind. Particularly for non-fiction reviewers, attentive to the prose, evidentiary foundation and argument of a book, reviewing can be the most rewarding way to read. So, what’s in it for the reader of the review? The review extends the conversation between book and reviewer to include the review reader. And when they tell two friends… it’s geometric. That’s why the best of the genre doesn’t only tell you why you should want to read the book, but why you should read the review.

Okay, so no surprise that I did a forensic analysis of that review, breaking it down to a model, an actual model of sections with this pattern of paragraphs: 3-3-3-3-3-4-5-3.  You’ll have to read that piece to see why I think that’s a genius pattern and an exemplary review.  But one thing it isn’t is a book report.  It’s a review that would tell you what the book is about, but it tells you more about Gordon-Reed’s encounter with the book.

So.  There are lots of ways to read because we’re all wired differently, and we all have different priorities.  But this works for me, and I hope it helps students in particular.  If my approach isn’t as useful for you, I’d still encourage you to identify your method, surface the process, and organize your notes accordingly.

Happy (efficient) reading!

The Revolution in Bricky Reds

In the fall I shared a primary source packet I created for the community reading group I host at the Omohundro Institute throughout the year.  Finding new ways to explore early American history with non-specialists, especially historical scholarship that has made or is making a contribution to the field, is intensively researched and offers fresh perspectives, is rewarding.  You can see some of the books we’ve read listed on the OI’s website.  The selections are heavy on Virginia, for now.  And they reflect the interests of the group, which asked to read Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs:  Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Omohundro Institute and UNC Press, 1996).

Among the books we read for the fall was Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught:  The Washingtons Relentless Pursuit of the Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (Atria, 2017).  I had wanted to intensify the experience of the group, to emphasize the significance of the relationship of historical evidence to argument, and to explore the ways that particular types of archival abundance and scarcity shapes our historical narratives.  And, for me, the historical process is the same process of discernment every citizen of a democracy society must regularly exercise.  So for last election day, I created a packet of some of the most important archival materials that Dunbar analyzes and explores in her National Book Award finalist book, including newspaper advertisements, and George Washingtons correspondence in the key period just before and following  Ona Judge’s escape.  I think it was very helpful for the discussion, and I’m looking forward to seeing the group again this week to know if having those materials, in addition to the text, spurred further, later conversations.  Honestly I’m sure it would have been even better if I had been able to make the packet available significantly ahead of our meeting, but I’m still working on timely delivery!  You can find my post and packet here.

This week we’re discussing another book I have read in many formats and multiple times, and have gifted to friends and family, Jane Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color:  The World of John Singleton Copley (W.W. Norton, 2016).  One of the most powerful themes of the book is the often cruel vagaries of the eighteenth century, the ways that circumstance rather than innate qualities shaped lives then as it does now.   Copley is known to us as a quintessentially American artist, and yet was as skeptical of American identity as he was loathe to assume it.  How could he?  He was a British subject, through and through.  Copley’s astonishing ability to see foreground and background, what Kamensky calls his period-specific, bifocal “bivious gaze,” is plain from cover to cover.  He watched England from Boston, and then America from London.  He also offers a view that is  at once passion and cool assessment.  The lavish colors he employed, from Mercy Otis Warren’s unforgettable blue dress, to the arresting reds (Kamensky calls them “bricky”) of redcoats and robes, and drapery, tempt us to see a world either in intense motion or calm repose.  There is Paul Revere (1768), with that steady gaze, and there is the water pulling Watson and the Shark tautly together.

The Death of Major Peirson (1783). Tate, London.

On Copley’s canvases and Kamensky’s rendering, the Revolution is less the object of this book than a messy, violent, complex background.  One is tempted to compare the war to Kamensky’s professed favorite among Copley’s paintings, The Death of Major Peirson (1783), but one knows the limits of one’s art history background.  Leaving that temptation aside, and indeed the temptation to luxuriate in the luxury that Copley was increasing called to portray, Copley’s life as the model of American ambition tells a story about what he was prepared to sacrifice (family), what he wasn’t prepared to sacrifice (often, pride), and the power of an imperial, British identity.

The source packet for this book is very different than for Never Caught, for multiple reasons.  Some of Kamensky’s most powerful evidence is from Copley’s brush, so I included links to some of the most indicative paintings (of his, but also Thomas Gainsborough’s Ignatius Sancho of 1768).  Some of Copley’s correspondence is easily captured (via Founders Online) and in what Kamensky reports is a quite good edition from the Massachusetts Historical Society of the early correspondence.  Much of the later material  is in problematic edited collections or still in manuscript.  The correspondence I chose to include highlights, I think, that bivious allegiance of Copley’s, as he wrote to John Adams in the 1790s to offer prints of his work to the President and Vice-President.

I’m still working my way through the process of creating these packets.  The next reading is yet to be determined, and will be a group decision.  I’m looking forward to their choice, and to the challenge of finding ways to connect the material to the arguments and narrative in ways that further enrich the readings for us all.  Meanwhile, I’ve posted the one for Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color below.

K. Wulf Primary Sources for Kamensky, Rev. in Color

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