This month, we asked our editorial team to reflect on books they wished they had read earlier in their academic careers.
Luna Sarti: I read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us quite late in my education, when I had already realized that my field of research would be water practices and cultures. I came to this book because I was already interested in the theme of rivers and seas, after spending many years on topics that, although interesting, never fully engaged me. Had I been able to read this at an earlier stage in my education, it would have been easier to navigate career choices while mediating between my love for literary studies and my passion for the sciences.
Considering the popularity and fame of this work, it is somehow surprising that I had never come across it, although it might be interesting to consider the reasons why this has happened.
Published in 1951, The Sea Around Us is one of those remarkable books which can draw readers from both academia and the general public, pulling strings from different fields and perspectives. In her attempt to write the ocean, in fact, Rachel Carson combines knowledge from geology, palaeontology, biology, and human history, shifting between scales of time and space and creating stunning, memorable images. Much has been written on this book and on Rachel Carson’s unique gift for storytelling, with her capacity to combine the scientist’s eye and experience with the poet’s understanding of rhythm and clarity of expression.
Unlike other texts on earthly waters, this book is valuable not just as a source of information, but also as an inspiring model for research method and writing. I am particularly fond of part III, Man and the Sea About Him, which has introduced me to a different version of European history, one in which climate change in the Arctic and subsequent climate migrations play a role in those cultural shifts which are so crucial for our idea of modernity. Yet, the reason why I continue to go back to The Sea around Us, is a question of method and seeing because Carson’s words not only aim to train readers to see differently but also advocate for writers to write differently.
Many things would have gone differently had I read Rachel Carson’s work before going into higher education: I would have realized that one can combine knowledge from different fields (even if this is at the moment impossible in the Italian model for higher education) and that being drawn to both the humanities and the sciences is not weird, and more importantly that knowing about marine currents, atmospheric change, minerals, plant and animal life can be as important as other socio-political upheavals for developing a fuller historical imagination.
David Kretz: For most of college, a large chunk of my reading diet was taken up by Theory of a certain kind, usually French or Slovenian, published by Verso books, and written by people who teach at the European Graduate School. I went to Paris on an exchange to get a chance to see some of my heroes there, and did, but, ironically perhaps, also ended up taking a class that introduced me to anglophone political theory, particularly John Rawls and Alasdair MacIntyre. The latter would become influential for me in his thought and his style: an analytically-trained philosopher who nonetheless wrote with a historical mindset, in dialogue with the social sciences, and in unpretentious prose.
It wasn’t, however, until after college, early into grad school that I read Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), and I wish I had read it earlier. Perhaps the most important thing it taught me was that getting one’s ethics or politics right was not fully, or even primarily, a question of getting one’s overall (anti)metaphysics right. Purifying one’s basic theoretical vocabulary from all traces of phallogocentrism or the metaphysics of presence or idealism or whatever will never guarantee that one is politically on the right side or lives ethically, simply because right belief and right speech are only two aspects of ethical and political life. Right action is another, often more important one and the beliefs needed to guide right action are seldom those that Theory supplies — a rather trivial point for most activists I talk to, but one easily forgotten when one hangs out with philosophers and Theory people only for too long.
Moreover, though Rorty himself was very much concerned with defending an anti-foundationalist attitude, he did not let the problem of ‘escaping metaphysics’ haunt him the way it sometimes haunted, for example, Heidegger and Derrida. I have come to read Rorty as suggesting that the problem of metaphysics is at bottom one of method. As long as one is pluralistic and curious about many ways of being empirically minded enough to look at the stuff one wants to study, rather than muse about it out of the armchair, it does not matter so much what (anti)metaphysical doctrines one subscribes to.
He also convinced me that ethics and politics are continuous yet should not be conflated. One set of concepts might be appropriate to projects of private self-creation, another to public concerns of social and political progress. The two need not be forced into one single vision; political projects can orient a private life without swallowing it up. Finally, Rorty was a philosopher and theorist at heart but an unusually humble and self-conscious one, who had acquainted himself with a range of intellectual traditions and fields and developed a fine sense of what a species the intellectual is. His general theory of cultural change (vocabulary change brought about by a creative avant-garde that fights to overcome the old modes of speaking until it is overcome in turn by its successors) has its shortcomings, but it often struck me as a fairly accurate sketch of how academia and its fashions work.
If I could go back to the very beginning of my graduate school career and read one thing, it would be the American Historical Review. The paper version, actually. To tell the truth, I’d skip all the actual articles in favor of the book reviews. For an early career graduate student, there’s no better example of the invisible skills your professors just expect you to know as a history Ph.D. than the book reviews in our flagship journal.
Just scanning the titles of the books under review gives me the same kind of thrill I experience when I go to a really well-stocked supermarket and see all the different varieties of pears, mushrooms, and alliums, lined up in neat columns, with all their dappled colors and obscure uses. In the latest edition of the AHR we also have our own oddly-shaped pears, mushrooms and alliums. Just as a random selection, there’s reviews of: a book called Sewing the Fabric of Statehood about how US garment trade unions played a role in the project for a Jewish state in Israel; a book on the history of the failed satellite telephone service Iridium; and a book about someone called “Amalasuintha” who Google tells me was an Ostgoth regent queen. And then reading those book reviews! It’s like watching movie trailers: you get a sense of the arc of a monograph, and more importantly some of its flavor, without having to invest in the whole two- or three-hour experience. Did you know that in the 1990s Motorola tried to make this wild network of 66 low earth orbit satellites for rich people to have cell phone service everywhere?
The book reviews are also of course very useful. Skimming the titles of the books that have come to the consideration of the AHR can give graduate students an important sixth sense. What’s in right now? How can we make our little research projects fit the current fashion? Furthermore, the book reviews are a fantastic model of that difficult skill: how to gut a book. Gutting a book, rather than reading it, is the art of impatiently posing a series of questions to it. What historiography is the book speaking to? How does it use its sources? What’s missing? Why would you open this book up again in future? After you have your answers, you can then discard the book, its insides now on the outside like a gutted fish. Gutting a book is a tacit skill, and one that’s essential to surviving the reading load of early graduate school. And like so many tacit skills, everybody who has learned how to gut a book just seems to have forgotten that it takes a huge amount of conscious effort to learn. If you need to learn how to gut a book, like I did when I first entered graduate school, the AHR book reviews are a perfect guide. Particularly those workmanlike little reviews that seem like they were mass-produced in a book review factory. They are models of what a graduate student should learn from their assigned readings. The argument of the book. A discussion of the method and source base. A run-down of each chapter. And a paragraph or two at the end of where the book comes up short. One or two useful facts. If you have answered those questions, you are done with your reading. You have successfully gutted.
If you’re an early career graduate student, pick up the AHR instead of that Foucault! Skim it with impunity. Go down little rabbit holes and read reviews of books you’re never going to read, like our regent queen of the Ostgoths Amalasuintha, who was murdered by her cousin in her bath! Learn to skip to those last few paragraphs where, if the reviewer really wants, they get their knives out. “Despite its shortcomings.” “Students might find the writing difficult to follow.” “The book is limited in scope.” But more than that, read the book reviews critically, as an example of the set of tacit skills you will be learning over the rest of their career. A large part of our training is a mostly unconscious process where we are supposed to learn the invisible assumptions everyone has about what our work should be. Reading the book reviews of the AHR for a few hours every month will help make those assumptions much much clearer, and that process of learning these assumptions much more straightforward.
Andrew: For the longest time, whether through snobbery or oversight, I had a tendency to shun secondary literature and only read things directly from the source. Coming from a philosophy background and only discovering an interest in intellectual history during my PhD, I thought that to truly engage with a thinker’s ideas, I had to ignore all key interpretations and only read the original. My snobbery did serve me up to a point. The ability to engage with difficult and archaic texts directly is a foundational and indispensable in both intellectual history and philosophy. However, what I wish I had come to earlier was reading key interpreters of the thinker or work in question. Because when it comes to engaging with the broader scholarly community about a particular thinker, the weight of interpretation is unavoidable.
Take for example Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s blend of poetic and philosophical writing are beautiful, timeless works of both literature and philosophy and they always provide the reader with something new. At the same time, they are also works that have been abused and misinterpreted by people of all political and religious creeds. It makes sense then that a deep engagement with Nietzsche’s text directly is where the magic lies in providing relevant and insightful scholarship about his ideas. But at the same time, because of the fact that Nietzsche has been through so many waves of interpretation in the last hundred years, that new insightful idea that a reader may come away with is inevitably going to struggle if it can’t engage with the sense of ownership that people have of Nietzsche. In Paradigms for a Metaphorology (1960), Hans Blumenberg pointed out that the reasons that Galileo’s view of heliocentrism caused such uproar in his day was, in part, do to the fact that it directly engaged with the language and metaphors of the current interpretation of the solar system. Without an engagement with the language that articulated the dominant interpretation of the universe, Galileo’s new ‘reading’, achieved through observation, would not have provided the cognitive fuel necessary to fan the flames of revolution.
The point? Human beings respond whether positively, negatively or indifferent, to things they can relate back to their current knowledge or interpretation of an idea. So in the case of Nietzsche, the best interpretations have not only shown attentive readings of Nietzsche’s own text, but also a command of key interpretations. I’ve just finished reading I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux. One of the many reasons the book is so good, is that she is able to show, through engagement with primary sources, what many of the dominant interpretations of Nietzsche, on both the left and the right, miss. So my October reading regret is not one book, but more generally that I have come so late to key secondary sources and interpretations. For these provide a much needed insight into why engaging with a primary source is so indispensable.