Friday, March 6, 2009

Reading, Writing, Thinking: My New Book

The following is an excerpt from my newly published book, Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History, available at and other retailers.

Reading, Writing Thinking: That’s what your education is about. That’s all your education has ever been about. In elementary school, it was a matter of preparing you to acquire these crucial skills. Later, you took classes in various subjects, but while the specific content may have varied—lab reports, equations, poems about the Middle Ages—it all came down to reading, writing, and thinking.

And that’s what it will continue to be about even after you finish taking the last class of your academic career. A radiologist poring over a magnetic resonance image (MRI); a government accountant preparing an annual budget; a sales representative sizing up a prospective customer on a golf course: for all these people, reading, writing and thinking are the essence of their jobs (even if what they’re reading, writing, or thinking about happens to be numbers or faces rather than words). At any given moment one of these skills may matter more than the other, and any given person may be better at one than the others. But every educated person in modern society is going to have to be able to do all three. Indeed, that’s precisely what it means to be educated in modern society. The faster and more gracefully you do these things in your chosen field, the more likely you are to reap the rewards it has to offer—and in some fields, the rewards are impressive indeed.

History, the subject of this book, is not one of those fields. Very few people get rich doing it. Certainly, lots of people, myself among them, have been seduced by its charms. For some, it’s a vocation, a lifelong commitment. For others, it’s an avocation—not a livelihood, but treasured for that very reason, a source of pleasure affording relaxation and wisdom in an otherwise crowded and stressful life. Of the seemingly inexhaustible list of things human being do for fun—passions other human beings regard as curious, if not downright bizarre—history is a single star in a crowded night sky.

Writing essays, the vehicle through which this book explores the subject of history, has a lot less intrinsic appeal. No one gets rich writing essays (on just about any subject—the most commonly read variety are those published on the op-ed pages of newspapers). And almost no one regards producing an essay as a relaxing experience, though there are people, admittedly not many, who do enjoy reading them. Under such circumstances, you may well wonder why so many teachers in so many schools ask you to produce them over and over again in more courses than you can count. It would be easy and understandable to conclude that the practice is at best a matter of marginal relevance, and at worst a waste of your time.

Understandable, but wrong. Actually, there are few better pedagogical tools for an educator than a well-conceived essay assignment. The chief reason for that is the chief premise of this book: there is no better way to simultaneously intensify and fuse the experiences of reading, writing and thinking than producing an essay. As I hope the ensuing pages will show, to really write well, you need to read well (and history, so rooted in sources, makes a special demand for reading). To do both, you really need to think hard—a habit, like physical exercise, that is both demanding and rewarding. Conversely, the experience of having read and written strengthens thinking, specifically a kind of thinking so central to the life of the mind: analysis.

Analysis is the keystone of this intellectual arch (and the topic of the keystone chapter of this book). It bridges reading, writing, and thinking, and is in effect the essence of what we typically call intelligence. It is a tremendous human achievement that takes manifold forms. Analytic talent is difficult to attain—and maddeningly difficult to teach. Despite countless attempts to quantify, mass-produce, and distribute a fast and cheap methodology, coaxing analysis out of students remains a highly labor-intensive skill for student and teacher alike. In the humanities, at least, we have yet to find a better tool for seeding fine minds than the traditional college essay.

Teachers may plant the seeds, but it is students who stretch and grow. It is important in this regard to recall that the word “essay” is not only a noun, but a verb: to essay means to try, attempt, test. The best essays have a wonderfully provisional quality, a sense of discovery as propositions are entertained by reader and writer alike. The experience can be difficult and exhausting for both, and yet there are also moments of breaking free, when suddenly a sense of flow is achieved and a genuine joy in learning takes place. That’s when all the hard work seems worth it. I suspect that if you’re reading this book you’ve had that experience at some point in your life. It’s my sincere wish that you will have it again repeatedly, and that this little book will aid you in that enterprise.

If it does, I don’t assume it will be because you read it straight through from beginning to end. Certainly, you can read it that way; I wrote it in the hope that you would. But I also strived to create multiple entry points, whether in individual chapters, or in the appendices, and point out places where you can jump for more information on particular points. That said, I think of this as less of a manual than a suggestive meditation. My model was novelist and essayist Anne Lamott’s arresting little 1994 book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Lamott addresses fiction writers, something I decidedly am not. But she is nevertheless fascinating in her discussion of her craft, and while I would never claim this book is remotely as entertaining as that one, I was nevertheless inspired by her work to try my hand at writing a book about the craft of history.

That said, I am not going to make a special claim for my adopted discipline in this Introduction. I have the rest of the book to do that, and my goals here are to make a broader pedagogic statement about the role of reading, writing and thinking generally. I will say, however, that I define history in a broad and humanistic way. Not having been formally trained as a historian—my doctorate is in American Studies—I lack expertise in some methodologies, particularly quantitative ones, that many scholars might well regard as crucial, if not indispensable. If nothing else, I bring a convert’s enthusiasm to the subject. My best hope for evangelizing lies in the power of my examples, of showing rather than telling. I hope you’ll see that as helpful.