How to Discuss a Book for History
In an earlier post on How to Read for History, I offered advice to undergraduate students who are assigned heavy reading loads for history classes. My central point in that essay was that reading is best thought of as a kind of conversation—ideally, a conversation that will continue after a reader has finished a book.
But, ideally or not, if you take history classes, you more than likely will find yourself being required to converse about the books you have read. If a professor assigns a book and expects you to participate in a class discussion about it, what should you do? What will you say?
If you are just beginning your study of history, you may find yourself wanting to make comments like the ones listed below. These hypothetical comments are quite commonly heard in undergraduate classes, and they are fine as far as they go. But this post is designed to help you make your comments go farther. These show, at a minimum, that you engaged with the book beyond a memorization of what it said; you had the beginnings of a “conversation” with the author. But each of these good comments, with a little more thinking and preparation, can become great comments.
“I didn’t like this book. The topic just didn’t interest me.”
If the subject of the book was boring to you, see if you can figure out why the author found the topic interesting. What are the differences between you and the author that might explain why he or she spent years researching this subject?
Is there a section of the book in which the author makes the case for the topic’s significance? If so, focus on that section and try to tease out why it didn’t convince you.
If the topic of the book didn’t interest you, you may not be alone. Often writers take up a subject because they have found that previous historians or writers never thought to consider it. See if there is a section in the book that discusses what previous writers have said about this topic. You may find an earlier camp that shared your lack of interest in the topic; see if you agree with their reasons, and if so, think about how you would explain why the topic lacks significance.
On the other hand, be aware that your dislike of the topic might not be universally shared. Consider more specifically why other writers whom the book mentions have considered this topic. Look back at the previous or later reading assignments made by your professor, and see if you can make a guess about why this topic was included in this class. Does it connect with other themes or questions that have come up? If so, name those connecting themes, and if not, point this out by saying specifically why the topic seems out of place or “not like the others” in the course.
Finally, think carefully about whether your negative reaction to the book was due to the content or the author’s style of presentation. If the latter, you may have had reactions like the next two.
“The book was repetitive. S/he kept making the same point.”
What was that point? Others might have missed what you found to be everywhere, so work on summarizing, as concisely as possible, what you identified as the main, constantly repeated point. Were the repeated points major ones that deserved emphasis, or did the author frequently repeat points that you think were minor in comparison to the main points?
“The book was way too long.”
What could the author have cut out without sacrificing the main point or argument of the book? This reaction offers you another way to articulate the main argument of the book by explaining specifically what you considered superfluous.
“The author doesn’t even talk about Topic X.”
Would the inclusion of this topic have changed the main argument of the book? Explain how. Every book must stop somewhere, but some things can safely be left to another book while others are crucial. Is the topic that you wanted addressed one of these? If so, explain why.
“I found the content shocking. Can you believe people in the past did this?”
Why was this content unfamiliar or shocking to you? Is there a gap between the way the typical person “remembers” the past and the work that historians do? Were you taught about this subject in school? If not, do you have ideas about why not? Should the subject be taught or known more generally, and if so, why?
“They did a lot of research and clearly know their stuff. I can’t think of anything to criticize!”
Take a close look at the bibliography or the footnotes. What kind of research or evidence did the author most rely on? Are there particular collections of documents or particular kinds of sources (documents, maps, images, films, novels, etc.) that the author uses most frequently? Would research in different sorts of collections, produced by different historical actors, have changed the book in any way?
Alternatively, see if you can find an exemplary passage where the expertise and skill of the author is on full display. Why did this passage strike you as such a clear example of the depth of the author’s research? How did s/he use evidence in this passage to persuade you, the reader, of a point’s validity?
“I loved this book! What more can I say?”
As with the last question, see if you can make a list of the specific things that you liked. Was it the extent or quality of the evidence? The author’s writing style? How did the choices made by the author improve the book, and can you imagine a different choice that might have made it less successful? You can make this good comment great by pointing to specific passages that exemplify the book’s strengths.
On the other hand, be aware that your love for the book may not be universal. Are there any hints within the text itself that other authors disagree with this one? If not, seek out a review of the book online or in the library. Does the book or the review point to larger debates within the history profession, and if so, can you guess what the major counter-arguments to your support for the book would be? Prepare for the discussion by thinking about those counter-arguments so you can better defend your agreement with the author’s position.
In all of these cases, the best way to make a good comment great is to take each book you read seriously as a labor-intensive, long-in-the-making expression of the author’s considered opinions. Those opinions therefore deserve your careful consideration, too.
The author you have read probably began the process of writing this book with comments or reactions not unlike the ones listed above: he or she found something shocking or intriguing, or disagreed strongly with something else he or she read. But as the existence of this book shows, there was much more to be said about the subject than “I wonder why they did that then?” or “That view is just wrong!”
Thus, even better than using the tips above is to use the book itself as your guide for how to make thoughtful comments about it. Just as the author pushed beyond an initial reaction to a topic or debate, you can deepen your reaction and thereby enrich the discussion in your history class.
For more thoughts on how to participate in or facilitate class discussions about a history book, check out these other guides:
- Hints for Class Discussion, from History and American Studies at the University of Mary Washington
- Tips on Leading Class Discussions, by Rachel Seidman
- Reading Well to Discuss Well, by Harry Williams
- Facilitating a Discussion from the University of Oregon
And if you have ideas or links of your own, you can send them to me on Twitter and I’ll consider them for inclusion here. Have a great discussion, and happy reading!