Although I wrote that I agreed with many points in Larry Cebula’s “How to Read a Book in One Hour” post, I must admit that I did so with some regret. I truly do enjoy good history writing when I find it. And graduate school would be a waste if one only took books apart rather than relishing, at times, in an author’s prose. Indeed, maybe graduate programs are turning out substandard writers, in part, because seminar reading programs are too heavy with 15-books-in-15-weeks type syllabi? Perhaps it is less that programs are not teaching historians how to write, and more that programs are not letting students learn to appreciate good prose?
I am in this reflective mood about slow reading courtesy of Christopher Shea at the Boston Globe‘s Brainiac blog. There I ran across the reflections of Columbia University literature professor Jenny Davidson. Davidson recently won Columbia University’s Mark Van Doren Award for undergraduate teaching excellence, and she posted the remarks she planned to give at the award ceremony. Here’s a passage that struck me (bolds mine):
It is tempting to rush to broad thematic generalizations about a work or an author, but how can you answer a big question about what something means if you can’t parse the meanings of the words in one enigmatic sentence? It takes a willingness to puzzle over small things – and often to admit that one doesn’t understand some particular turn of phrase or twist of argument – to earn the right to answer the bigger and more glamorous questions.
I repeat: To earn the right to answer the bigger and more glamorous questions. Well said. I wonder how many historians bother to earn that right? And why bother if we’re not consistently trained to admire good prose?
One of the reasons I enjoy intellectual history is precisely because it forces a slower reading. The prose isn’t always great, but the topics are complex enough that one has to read more deliberately. I think that, by and large, intellectual historians do earn the right to ask bigger questions because, in part, they are forced to read slower. The nature of intellectual history demands it.
So having the practical skill of knowing “how to read a book in one hour” might get you through graduate school—perhaps even with flying colors—but it won’t give you the appreciation needed to produce good prose for a profession that will hopefully last one’s lifetime. And what is the use of making it through, or what is the use of a program credentialing people, if the apprenticeship does does not provide the master skills? – TL