Monday, January 12, 2015

On Reading Well

Last night I finished reading “The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities” by Richard Bushman. As I closed the book for the last time, I couldn't help but think about how valuable good books are to my work. It is so easy to perpetuate myth and hyperbole when thinking about history. Even though we may have been taught better, the nuances of historical actuality are too often missed. To remedy this, a well-conceived book is ballast for our thoughts about our ancestors, what they did, and why they did it. It takes an exceptional author to be able to compellingly lay out a historical narrative in a way that highlights obvious points of contact to the lives of a diversified audience. That is history done well.

The key to building a worthy library is found in the Bibliography in the back of every good book you own. This section reveals the scholarship the author is relying on. Look those books up. Buy them. Read them and their bibliographies. Then read those books and their bibliographies. And on it goes. You may feel overwhelmed for a while but it is not long before you begin to see certain sources cited over and over again. This is a good sign. Those are the ones that might be worth taking a closer look at.

Really good exhibition catalogs put out by major museums are usually a sure bet. These can be pricey but are almost always worth it. Top-drawer up-to-date scholarship is not always expensive, though. My library consists mostly of used books. While cost is not the decisive factor in book selection, most used books are cheap. There are a handful of used book stores online. Try AbeBooks or Amazon for starters.

Annotated for future reference

Pay close attention to good scholars: highlight in your books. Underline. Annotate. Use whatever markings that will help you digest the text. Unless you are trying to amass a pristine collection for sale someday, use your books like tools. There is something about the physical motion of highlighting that seems to facilitate the learning process. It sticks better that way. Beyond the benefits of first time comprehension, I later find that merely flipping through pages scanning highlighted portions with my eyes instantly brings back the content of what I read. This is a great way to go back six months later and quickly brush up on important topics. If you don’t highlight, the only other alternative is rereading every word again.

For really important books, I will actually go back through the book again and annotate the highlighted sections of the text. This may seem overkill, but when there is a book I have to go back to over and over in my research, this is a big time saver.

So read much but make sure you read well. Retention and revisitation are the two goals for reading well.

Any other tips you have to contribute?


  1. The Shaker World is good book. I got my copy from a Used Book store in Wells Maine. I always stop there whenever I come up north.

  2. I am a furniture/woodworker(by no means very good) but..."I too love books"..Your thoughts are true,very true.I also enjoy your fine blog.