Report on Reading: 2016
If we count the two books I’m reading at the moment, I will have read and finished at least 60 books in 2016. Though I accumulated many of those conquests in the headlong rush of graduate school history reading (with all of its shortcuts), I was nevertheless able to complete more than a book per week on average. In this post, I will be reflecting on how my reading habits have changed over the past year and what the highlights were. Commence!
Fiction Goes Away Again
Summer 2015 saw me returning fiction after a long drought. By contrast, 2016 was fiction-free with the exception of a few comics, one book by Jeff Vandermeer, and, if it counts, Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Although I could blame the pressure of graduate school for dissuading me from reading much if at all for pleasure, this excuse does not hold water. I spend a great deal of time reading nonfiction in my spare time, and if there were any fiction I wanted to read, I certainly would.
And there were one or two books that caught my eye. After all, why else would I start reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a multi-volume novel? I stalled a couple of hundred pages in and have not looked at the book since, but it’s still a live prospect until I have to return it to the library.
My reason for avoiding fiction has less to do with free time and the lack thereof than the fact that I find fiction less fun and more difficult to read than nonfiction. History, in particular, is highly readable in most cases because modern authors structure their work in the form of linear arguments and narratives that are easy to follow from one point to another while glossing over details that may or may not of any intellectual value to me. I do read fiction in a similar way much of the time, looking for themes, through-lines, and remarkable imagery while often passively forgetting the plot and even character names as I go, it feels somehow less appropriate with fiction. Fiction authors write their books to communicate ideas, of course, but they are also meant to be stimulating and enjoyable in their own right. I feel guilty for reading fiction the way that I do, which also reflects the very theme and idea-driven way I’ve always written fiction and poetry.
One solution to this problem–-since I recognize that my inability to enjoy fiction is a not a particularly attractive or constructive quality––is to simply embrace the fact that I read differently from other people. Not caring about plot or conflict in the slightest, actively seeking out so-called “spoilers” to reduce plot tension that might be emotionally distressing, I have a certain rhythm to the way I read that I may as well own. It certainly lacks some of the spontaneity of a cold-read, a reading that follows the plot beat-for-beat and invests energy into characters, but it has its advantages as well. In particular, once I’ve finished a book for the first time, I can summarize it well enough to get by in a casual conversation and, further, have enough of a deeper grasp of the themes, style, and ideas underpinning the book that I can write worthwhile articles and blog posts about it. Since I don’t plan on writing about fiction for a living, that’s all I really need. Other people have the snarky plot summaries and character analysis covered anyway.
Digging into Braudel and the Annales
Having buried myself deeply into Marxist historiography in the past, I found myself thinking and writing a great deal about one Fernand Braudel. Partly because of academic obligations and partly because of genuine fascination/affinity, I dedicated many hours to reading The Mediterranean, Braudel’s gigantic two-volume history of the Mediterranean world in the 16th century. After writing over 20 pages about it for a course, I feel I have an adequate grasp on the French historian’s method and his significant shortcomings. That said, I found him an especially slippery figure because he embodies disparate qualities that are not normally concentrated in one person. For instance, though he’s interested in a fine-tuned analysis of geographical and economic trends in European history, he also uses prose in an almost romantic way. Each chapter, though it claims to present some kind of structural analysis of historical epochs, also swarms with the filigree of detail and drama. In short, he’s a fantastic writer, albeit one whose ambitions naturally exceed even his great ability. Forging a unified social science on the basis of a global history is obviously beyond the capacity of any one scholar, no matter how prolific.
I would recommend reading Braudel in sections and short bursts. He has the quality of a short story writer in his chapter construction, albeit with more of a wandering eye. He reminds me of Henri Lefebvre in the way he combines theoretical analysis with a wide-ranging humanism. It dies from a thousand flaws when stretched out long enough, but a little Braudel goes further than a little of any other writer I know.
And, hey, if you have the time and the shelf space, read the entire Mediterranean in bed at night. It’s history gone picturesque.
Finding a Niche
At the beginning of 2016, I planned on being a relatively conventional economic and social historian with a bit of a cultural edge. I know my way around a spreadsheet about as well as psychoanalytical criticism of advertising––which is to say, I know it but don’t particularly like it. Taking a pre-industrial environmental history course, however, eviscerated my preconceptions about history and my work. Since reading The Entropy of Capitalism, I’ve been reading a steady stream of scientific articles and even mathematical discussions of subjects like nonlinear dynamics, modelling, population biology, and how all these subjects can be connected to social sciences and the humanities. I don’t fancy myself the proprietor of a kind of total history, but I have a strong affinity for fields that are able to synthesize insights from across porous disciplinary boundaries. These pores and connections have to be made rather than just used as if picked off the ground. Environmental history excels at putting cultural, economic, geographical, biological, and traditional historical knowledge together in a way that rarely feels forced or eclectic. For my money, it’s where leftists should be going in history right now, especially given the tremendous scale of the environmental issues currently staring us down.
Though I plan on discussing this further in another entry for A Hundred Thousand Names, I have to address one reason why this blog has been less active lately. One reason is certainly the fact that I was writing multiple 15-plus page papers as well as enrolment applications while handling other everyday demands. As with the fiction example, however, I have to recognize that I could have been spending more time writing blog posts and less time playing Magic: The Gathering or making weird graphic design challenges for myself. My mind has been in ferment lately, and for a variety of reasons ways of thinking and acting that satisfied me before have become increasingly difficult for me to accept. None of this turmoil has been traumatic or painful. Rather, it has simply rendered me less able to put thoughts down in an order and language that pleases me. It’s a pall of uncertainty accentuated by the cold and the dark, and I hope I can use this blog as a forum for subtly working through some of these more difficult issues.
We’ll see what this blog looks like once I’m in a more confident position, but for now, best to everyone and happy reading in 2017.