Of fraudsters and scholars, Part II: two kinds of historians

In a recent e-mail exchange with Squadratomagico, we discussed something that relates very closely to the subject we’re exploring here in this space, namely, feeling like an untrained fraud when you move on to another book project and/or contemplate retraining yourself in another sub-field (or even an entirely different discipline).  In a recent conversation with a senior person in her field, she said that his advice about moving into a new project (with whatever reading and/or retraining that might require) was not to be too intimidated by the existing literature in a given sub-field.  His advice was to learn from that literature, but not to get stalled there or let it talk you out of pursuing your own ideas. 

This is very much related to a conversation I had over a decade ago with a senior scholar in my field.  When I expressed wonderment at keeping up with all of the new books and articles published in our field (because 3 years out of grad school, I was already far behind.  Three years!).  He said in response, “there are two kinds of historians:  those who read books, and those who write books.”  In other words, his advice was strikingly similar to the advice Squadrato got–you have to make time to write, and if that’s what you want to do, you just have to do your best with the existing scholarship and push the boat out anyway.  Think boldly, act locally. 

I think that’s very sound advice.  I also suspect that once you’ve published a scholarly monograph that got at least decent reviews, you get more leeway with your second book.  After all, you’ve shown you can bring a large project in for a landing, and you’ve proved that you have a right to have opinions about issues or ideas in your field or sub-field/s.  I’d like to hear what the rest of you think–am I right about having freer rein with the second book, or am I kidding myself?  (The answer, I’m sure, relates at least in part to our discussion yesterday, and precisely how far afield of your first book is your second.)  Those of you who have finished second, third, or fourth books–don’t hold back out of modesty!  Serve it forth.

More sage advice:  as my husband delighted in reminding me once upon a time, when I was struggling to finish book #1, “you can’t talk about your second book until you have a first book.”)

0 thoughts on “Of fraudsters and scholars, Part II: two kinds of historians

  1. may I just say thank you for that bit about “there are two kinds of historians: those who read books, and those who write books.”

    I’m a librarian, not a historian, but as I have been moving more towards writing (and in a semi-related field to librarianship no less – or rather librarianship as seen in a topic in another field) I have been bogged down with the feeling that I had to read tons of stuff similar to my current project to get an idea of how to write in that area, and because of it have not done the specific work I need to do for the project. Your comments have reminded me that I can’t use “background reading” as an excuse never to actually work on my project =D Obviously I knew that, but some days we all need a kick in the rear.

    So thank you.


  2. You’re right that the first book gives you permission on the second. The first shows that you know what you’re doing, you know the rules. Then you can start playing with them, which is — as in all the arts — when your personality shows through.

    When I did my second project, I did not read everything that had ever been written on toenail clipping, on which there is a massive literature; I focused primarily on toenail clipping in New Place. Life is short. I tried to make sure that I’d read the important stuff. And I always emphasized that my project was looking at New Place from the perspective of Old Place, that I was not trying to write a definitive history of New Place. I wanted to argue that histories of New Place had missed important things BECAUSE they didn’t come from Old Place. (Though I undoubtedly missed things for that very reason.)

    Also, I always work kind of dialectically: I read around, then I go into the archives, start writing, and read some more, because I have a better idea of what I need to read. My rough drafts are rough.


  3. I think I’m with Susan. But I’ll articulate her notion in another way. To me, it’s important to remember the old saw that “writing is thinking.” When we tackle a project—presently or in the future, first book or beyond—our work constitutes our thinking. So there’s no reason to fear one’s lack of research and thought before writing, because the act of writing (and reading, books or archival material) helps make up the deficit. Yes, revision is necessary—but it’s necessary no matter how much pre-thinking and research you’ve performed on a project. …Caveat: This is coming from a guy without (yet!) book publishing credentials—with a lot of articles and two books in the hopper (not completed but promising projects). – TL


  4. I’m following this conversation with interest as I start project #2. It seems to be a mystery to me.

    If there’s one thing that grad school writing teaches us, it’s that there will always be another book, another article, another something out there (and for those of us who work on archives, it’s the same with primary documents), and we can’t let that stop us from sitting down and writing. That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t try to be as complete as possible.

    There is also a corrolary: if there’s a book you haven’t read, there’s a jerk-face who will try to use your lack of that one book as a reason for discounting your work. My former doctoral advisor, when congratulating me on the book (I just sent him his copy) warned me of the reviewers who like to write things like “It is a great pity that Dr. [Notorious] appears to have been unaware of the charter that I discovered last week in a garbage dump in a Slovenian village that confutes her entire thesis.” But his point was that, if I’ve done due diligence, reasonable readers won’t nitpick.

    Still, none of this convinces me that I don’t have some auto-retraining to do over the next few years. I will write the book, but I do need to read. I just need to keep in mind why I’m reading.


  5. Notorious, this is why you need to start writing and then go back to reading. It reminds you WHY you are reading.

    An old (true) story, from the 1950s in the UK: two eminent historians, Christopher Hill and Hugh Trevor-Roper, were on some radio show, arguing about something. At some point, Trevor-Roper said to Hill, “But Christopher, surely you have read the article by T G Snodgras in the Southern Blagistan Historical Journal on toenail clipping in 17th century Blagistan, which demonstrates that you are wrong?” Hill admitted that he hadn’t, but being a good historian, went back to look it up; it didn’t exist. The next time he saw Trevor-Roper, he chided him for making up the reference, and Trevor Roper said, “I knew you’d fall for it.”


  6. I’m desperately trying to follow Senior Scholar’s advice: just this week, I began the process of getting into the New Project again. Yesterday, I kept having little panic-bombs go off in my head that said: You’re not ready. In response, I am simply forcing myself to believe I am, by a sheer act of bravado and will.

    I think reading and reading and reading is a sort of security blanket sometimes: it allows procrastination from the tougher work of writing, while still allowing the sense that one is doing something towards the book. Moreover, as Notorious suggests, obsessive reading helps to stave off fears about “the charter discovered last week in a garbage dump in a Slovenian village” factor (well put, N. PhD!), though it doesn’t entirely obviate that fear, either.

    I’d also love to hear others’ comments on processes towards writing and publishing the second book versus the first book: is it a little easier after one has “proved” oneself?


  7. A senior scholar, quite possibly the same one who Historiann later conversed with, once steered me to an essay that had nothing to do with anything I was working on or could even have imagined working on, to wit, Donald Fleming, “Emigre Physicists and the Biological Revolution” (1968). By way of making the point–if I’m remembering this at all–that intellectual trespass, sometimes forced and other times willful, can have profoundly transformative impacts on the thing being incurred on, precisely because the invaders aren’t bound by all of the submolecular understandings of things that those intentionally trained in a field tend to presume. I’m not sure if I even read the thing, or just nodded soberly and remembered the core point ze was making. It used to be said that the advice people got in initial graduate seminars was to “ground yourself in the literature” and “immerse yourself in the (primary) sources.” If and when doing both ever became impossible because of the sheer bulk of stuff and the finiteness of time, I think I’ve tended to prefer the second mandate.

    On second books, I don’t know. Mine’s almost done, I think. The conventional wisdom has been that they’re the hardest of all books to write, but I don’t think in any particular proportion to the degree to which they involve shifting into new areas of investigation. They can and probably do take so long to produce that you understand them differently at the beginning, middle, and end, which would make generalizing problematic.


  8. My second book, which took 11 years from the moment I saw the project to its publication, was much harder than my first. For my first, the diss. provided a “rough draft”. And I actually had more focused time at that point in my life…. becoming more senior comes with additional layers of responsibility, personal and professional (or at least it does for someone like me, who went to grad school straight out of college.)


  9. I concur with Susan: I had much, much more free time for my first book that I will have for the second — notwithstanding the fact that I actually have some time off. I don’t have the luxury to read as comprehensively as I did for the first one. It’s frustrating, because I have so many stacks of books I would love to be able to read closely and ponder… but instead, I just end up consuming them as rapidly as possible.


  10. As a reader of history, I wish you all would worry less about what other people have written and just produce as much interesting as possible. I don’t care if you are right, I care a great deal if you make me look at the world around me in a new way. Especially now that I my reading time is down to a only 10 books or so a year.


  11. I’ve never written any books. But in relation to the primary peer-reviewed scientific literature, I can tell you that as my career has progressed, I have spent less and less time reading papers. At this point, I hardly read any papers at all, and can pretty much get the necessary gist (for my purposes) of what’s in it just by looking at whose lab it’s from and what the title is.

    Most of the shit that gets published in the several fields we operate in I have already become familiar pre-publication either by discussions with the senior authors, or by peer reviewing the manuscripts and/or grants that have supported the work. In fact, now that I think about it, I probably read more manuscripts per year pre-publication as a peer reviewer than I do post-publication in journals.

    It is the job of all the grad students and post-docs in my lab to really get down and dirty with the contents of the primary literature, and it’s my job to chart out broad areas of attack and, most importantly, to develop a vision for where things are headed before anyone else has even started publishing or presenting anything there.


  12. I know a couple of historians who found it impossible to write until they read everything. Of course they couldn’t read everything, and it ruined them in a lot of ways. Because they couldn’t keep up, it kept adding to their insecurity. So I think writing is an act of bravery, faith, and hubris.


  13. This is a bit off-topic as I’ve yet to even publish a first paper, but one of my advisors told me that she likes to hear what grad students are doing because we haven’t gotten bogged down in what’s already been done (by ourselves as well as others), and so are at least interesting. That’s been really encouraging to me – I may miss out on referencing Ye Grande Important Paper, but I hope those who hear/see me can get still get something out of my work.


  14. takingitoutside–if you miss anything really un-missable, the peer-review process will set you straight.

    I like this from Katherine: “So I think writing is an act of bravery, faith, and hubris. I’m considering writing that on a piece of paper and framing it to hang above my desk.

    Thanks for the intel on second books from those of you who are in the know.


  15. squadrato: I don’t have anything substantive to add, I just wanted to throw in that I’m there with you on the panic bombs. Thinking about my second project (and beginning a bit of reading) is increasing my sense of dread, of “ohmygodcanireallydothis?” It seems to be impossibly ambitious, and so much more complicated than Soon-to-be-Book-#1 at least in terms of source material. I’ve done a tiny bit of archival research that has already forced me to reframe the project because it turns out the X sources I was hoping for don’t exist, but I can probably use Y instead. For me, I don’t think I will become calm until I get back into the archives – once I find some source material and something starts to come together, I don’t worry so much about the fraud feeling. But it’s *contemplating* how major it is to start something totally new that’s freaking me out. Now, to get myself to the archives!


  16. Still following the discussion (but from Puddletown), and want to clear up one thing: the precise phrasing about the dump was lifted verbatim from Esteemed Former Advisor’s e-mail to me. He is actually a wryly witty guy. He just doesn’t going to get a chance to show it much.


  17. Books 1 & 2 were on radically different topics, time periods, and regions – and book 3 is just the same. And I agree that you encounter and embrace your background reading in a very distinctive fashion as you write the first book. Go for it! But the real difference, for me, came in the review process for book 2, where I had greater authority to push back against some tough critiques. Glibly summed, I could stand on my reputation as an established scholar of subject X, and say to the press, “hey, this person and I are just never going to agree about this, for the following reasons,” and the press would actually take me seriously. In one case, my editor actually round-filed a negative review! In the end, our conversations made the book much, much better. It helps, too, that I’d worked with the same, delightful editor, and that we’ve established a warm relationship in the years since the first monograph.


  18. I have nothing particularly helpful to add, or even moderately insightful. The first book was from the dissertation. This one is in the same period dealing with some of the same questions (slavery and anti-slavery and women), but between the two books I had a job that introduced me in a very detailed way to the specific subject matter of the current book. So, the steps between my first and second books weren’t particularly traditional.

    That said, when I started this second one, I freaked out thinking, “I have so much to read! Ack!” I was thinking that I needed to know EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING related to the subject. As I get down to the nuts and bolts of putting the thing together and researching in the archives, I find that I don’t feel that I need to read for EVERYTHING, I need to read for ideas and approaches that will help me ask (and answer) better questions about what I find in the archives (and some of it is so juicy and I can’t beleive no one ever used it before like this!).


  19. Like many, I let the intimidation of writing on a new time period and topic for my second book stall me. I regret this and hope to not fall into the same trap again. But I do get frustrated reading manuscripts and articles as an outsider reviewer from authors who do not cite the basic literature in their field, and yet present their own findings as “new.” There needs to be a balance. As I begin research on my third project I’ve decided to start by teaching a class on toenail clipping so I can get a handle on some of the basic sources–both primary and secondary. But I will do my best to avoid the decade-long “must read everything” trap I fell into previously.


  20. Not long after I finished my master’s degree, I moved back in time about 90 years and began working on something completely different. In the fall, I am starting a Ph.D. program in the new field, but I have already been writing and presenting on it for nearly three years. Because I was learning the historiography mostly on my own, I worried that I was missing major parts of the literature, and it took a couple of years to convince myself that I really wasn’t overlooking anything crucial. And, like many of you who changed fields between Books 1 and 2, I found that the training I received in thinking about history made it possible for me to make that transition.
    Regarding Lance’s point about having more credibility with the press, I was really lucky when I submitted my first article. The anonymous reviewer disagreed with my interpretation and wrote a negative (and quite harsh) review based on that rather than judging my scholarship. Fortunately, the editors of the journal realized what had happened. They helped me discern what was productive criticism and what wasn’t, and I improved the article without substantially changing my argument. As a young grad student, I wouldn’t have known why the review came back so critical, and if the editors hadn’t been so hands on, the experience would have been extremely discouraging.


  21. This is a great discussion, and an important one. My situation is a little idiosyncratic since my first book was on a topic that had nothing in common with my dissertation except time period. I’d already abandoned my diss. as a possible book project, and now I’ve published two of the five diss. chapters as articles and am building a second book on the remaining material + ten years of perspective and intermittent new research. Unlike Ikea furniture, the bits leftover from your Malmnoord futon/file cabinet (or whatever) actually can have a use, if you’re creative about it.

    That having been said, for the next, next project, I’m going in a very different direction. Same time period, and same overall core topic, but vastly different region, totally distinct literature, and very different academic culture surrounding it (also highly politicized, yikes!).

    If I have any advice to give, it’s that, once you’ve completed the all-important first work (i.e. qualified for tenure) you should _always_ be thinking one big project ahead, for three reasons. First, it gives you valuable perspective on your current work and helps you avoid tunnel vision. Second, it means when you formulate a new idea, find a new source, or scan the current journals, you are twice as likely to come across something useful. And third, it means that by the time the current project is complete, you have at least a foundation for starting the next. You’ve already done some thinking about it, have a list of titles, a few ideas, and put together some possible contacts, so it’s not really unfamiliar territory any more. Popular wisdom says that an outside perspective often sees things most clearly, so, if you have your scholarly chops, there’s a good chance you’ll bring something new, albeit with the humility of a tyro in that particular area.

    Our career as scholars has a very long trajectory, and we should always keep that in mind after the initial slog of tenure approval is done. The scariest thing in the world is a blank page, but in the digital age, there’s no cost for keeping extra files open.


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