Historians on Reading
As readers we want to do necessary but not extraneous work. Hang on,
did I say "readers?" Not critics, peer-reviewers, teachers,
researchers, curators, or historians, but readers. This profession
asks us to wear many hats, sometimes complementary and occasionally in
conflict, but we are rarely asked and even more seldom trained to be
"just readers." We learn to approach texts from several utilitarian
perspectives. What information is here, where are the facts? How are
these details being used to construct an argument? What are the
primary sources? What's the sustaining secondary literature? Who is
this author arguing with or against? But we learn to engage these
important habits of mind without being explicit about the single skill
that nourishes them all: reading.
Of course we read, but as historians we engage the substance of the
words without enough consideration of form. We appreciate a
well-written book, but are not conditioned to look for the hallmarks
of good writing. Instead we take for granted, though usually with
gratitude, a graceful piece of prose. It is precisely where we do not
need to stop and mine for content that we ought to slow down and pay
attention to the details of craft. What was the sleight of hand that
let the author move us from A to B without plodding?
Well-crafted text is the product of a series of conscious decisions.
Subject matter, tone, pacing, authorial presence, rhetorical device,
lexicon, and narrative structure all have conventions that each piece
of writing can follow or disrupt, depending on the author's intention.
In good prose, these elements are often difficult to disaggregate.
They work in harmony to create a seamless impression. To see them
individually, we need to read attentively and ask questions of the
text, from a writers' perspective, not just the historicist and
theoretical ones that dominate conventional training and practice.
For historians, one of the first steps to better writing is
self-awareness. We are, in fact, writers, and consequently need to
spend some (more) of our time thinking like writers. Such thinking
includes paying particular attention as readers, not just as consumers
of information and argument, but as craftspeople aware that a range of
authorial decisions is always in play.