How many times have you given up on reading some massive history book because you just lost steam?
You’re 437 pages in (only halfway) and one day you skip your reading session because you’re too tired.
A week passes and you haven’t touched the book, and, afraid of the book almost like a student who has skipped too many classes is afraid of the teacher, you never return, embarrassed and defeated.
This has happened to me far too many times.
I’ll be reading something like Battle Cry of Freedom, a 1,000 page history of the US civil war, taking notes, and fully enjoying the book, when all of a sudden I just lose steam and have to take a break.
But then the break turns into a divorce. And six months later I feel like I’ve failed on a learning project I cared about.
Why does this happen? Why do we give up on long history books so often?
A few months ago I stumbled upon a History Professor’s little guide on how to read history books, and it revealed the true cause of my frequent capitulations.
Basically, I was reading too slowly.
I was giving equal attention to every word, every detail (probably a habit I picked up from my literary studies).
So my progress was incredibly slow — like 1000 pages in 100 days slow —an amount of time hard to justify to yourself unless you’re a historian…
Here’s what the Professor said that opened my eyes:
“In a very structured book, reading only the first sentence of every paragraph will give you a summary of the entire text.”
My first thought was, “So you can just read the topic sentences and skip the rest?”
But, as any good writer, he anticipated that question, and answered it:
“Does this mean that it is sufficient to read only the topic sentences, and to finish a 300 page book in 40 minutes? Not exactly. Because a good book (and your instructors wouldn”t assign a book they didn’t think worthwhile) will contain dozens of topic sentences that will provoke you to read the whole paragraph. The topic sentences have the same function as headlines in a newspaper. They give you a brief glimpse of the paper”s contents, so you can decide which areas demand more detailed exploration. In other words, read quickly through the parts you believe; read slowly through the arguments of which you are not convinced.”
I love how he says topic sentences in history books have the same function as a headline.
He says to read the paragraphs containing arguments you’re not convinced on, and I’m all for that.
But as a non-historian, I’m also taking it to mean that you should read the paragraphs that interest you, and to skip the others.
Applying This Tactic
In practice, I still find myself reading most of the paragraphs in history books (about 75% of the whole book).
I find most things interesting, so most of the topic sentences do a good job luring me in. Plus, I still get a little guilty if I skip too much (something I’m working on lol).
But that license to skip over what bores me has proved wonders for my reading habit.
Recently I applied it to an entire 10-page section of a history book about the transcendentalists, where the author was going a bit too in-depth for me on the church politics of early 19th century Concord MA.
I felt relieved doing it, like I’d just found a shortcut to avoid a clog up on the highway.
Sometimes that license to skim is all we need to avoid or break out of a reading slump, finish long history books, and unlock our full potential as a reader.
I think there’s another reading lesson in all this that’s worth mentioning.
Notice how gaining knowledge about the conventional structure of history books helped me read them more productively, and give up less often.
My ignorance about what’s obvious to any historian was holding me back.
So learn the conventions of the genres you read, and you’ll enjoy them all the more!
That’s all for today.
Here’s the article on how to read a history book: I highly recommend reading it.
If you want to learn more about history, check out my two history self-education roadmaps:
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