A Historian At Work: The Basics, Part Two of Two

Part One — Part Two 

“Years!” you say. “How can it take you years to write a book?” “Look at Michael Pollan? Or Thomas Friedman? Or Doris Kearns Goodwin? They publish a new book about once a year. What? You too stupid to do that? Are you lazy?”

I’m not sure about the too stupid part, but I’m definitely not lazy. But those people have something I don’t have: Help. They rely on paid assistants to do the scut work, much of the research, and, for better or worse, much of their writing, especially of the first drafts.

What’s scut work? Remember all those sources I mentioned above? Those aren’t just sitting in a neat stack somewhere, waiting for me to leaf through them. I have to find them. I have to figure out what I want to read, what I need to read, and then I have to track down a copy of whatever it is — newspaper, magazine article, traveler’s diary. (*1)

If I’m lucky, the material is in the nearby university library, or that library can borrow it for me. If I’m not so lucky, I may have to travel to the place where the material is stored. For the beer book, for example, I used various repositories in Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis.

And then I have to read and absorb and analyze it. (*2) And then I have to repeat the process, oh, another seven, eight hundred times. (No, I’m not exaggerating.) (Nor am I complaining. I LOVE my work.)

Months later, when I’ve conducted enough research so that I “know” my subject, I start writing. And as soon as I start writing, well . . . something amazing thing happens. As I write, my brain begins a conversation with itself and I truly begin to understand what my book is about, what all that research material means, and whether I ought to go this direction, or that direction.

Often that means I have to stop, go back to the sources, and re-read them because I’ve decided that my initial understanding of them was flawed. Or, more often, I realize that I need to read different sources, ones that I didn’t realize were relevant. And then I go back to my keyboard and start writing, and the creative process starts all over again.

And . . . five years later? I’ve completed a book. That’s what I do. Any takers?

________________________

*1: This is what historians refer to as “constructing a bibliography.”

*2: Up until about, oh, two, three years ago, about 98% of this material was on paper or on microfilm or microfiche. I’ve spent hours of my life sitting in front of a microfilm reader, loading reels of film, slowly scanning the film, re-winding the reels, etc. (The good news is that these days those machines are electric, so at least I don’t have to hand-crank to rewind the entire reel. I actually damaged my right shoulder in grad school just from cranking the handle of a microfilm reader.) Nowadays, I’d say about half the sources I use have been digitized. More about that later.

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