If books had feelings, at my house they would think they had entered a maelstrom. I am a book-aholic. I am admitting that I love books, but they have not gotten the best of me yet. I think my addiction stems from being in grad school all those years and reading one history book after another. Or perhaps its the other way around, I was addicted to books, so I took classes in order to obtain the professor’s syllabus. Certainly, many of my profs put me onto good historians. And, they taught me how to read critically.
To keep up with my book addiction, I have several subscriptions to magazines and newspapers which review books, such as the New York Review of Books, The Economist magazine, and The Washington Post and New York Times. I also buy collections from the “Best” series, as Best American Short Stories. I have discovered more than one great author in the latter, such as Alice Munro.
Here’s how it works.
1. I read reviews or hear interviews with an author, and then look for a review his or her book. That’s how I stumbled onto Bob Woodward’s Price of Politics as well as several other books I read about the Great Recession of the past few years.
2. If the book sounds intriguing, I do more research, i.e. look for other reviews. Position on the New York Times best seller list does nothing for me, neither do most ‘word of mouth’ mentions. Reviews on Amazon are iffy…some good others not. A negative review won’t dissuade me from reading a book, in fact, it might work just the other way.
3. I hone the process of selection by my interests, which these days tend toward history…focused on politics and economics. Probably, because I am over the hill age-wise, I don’t read much romance any more.
After struggling to understand Hannah Arendt, most popular fiction bores me. However, I read a great romantic short story the other day, by a gal named Roxane Gay, in Best American Short Stories, 2012. Years ago, I read every edition in the BASS series, but in recent years, while I worked on my history grad degree, I read almost no fiction. I love short stories, I can read one in a doctor’s waiting room.
4. The next step in my process is buy the book…these days mostly on Kindle, although I stil buy the odd hard cover book.
5. When it arrives, I read the Introduction and first chapter. If the book hooks me, I keep it, if not, I return it immediately.
6. if the book really hooks me, I go on reading. If I have a more interesting book on hand, I put the new book down and go back to my more interesting book. Lately, almost without exception, I have returned to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Lincoln, which I read every morning for about one hour.
So, books come and books go, and I go on reading. Yesterday, I ordered and received Ira Katznelson‘s, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Times. I read the introduction and first chapter and will pick it up again today….it’s very good. We were assigned David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear in one of my history classes, a book about the New Deal, Depression and WWII. The book by Katznelson is a response. Why read more than one book on the topic of FDR and the New Deal? Arthur Schlesinger said it best:
Conceptions of the past are far from stable. They are perennially revised by the urgencies of the present. When new urgencies arise in our own times and lives, the historian’s spotlight shifts, probing into the shadows, throwing into sharp relief things that were always there, but that other earlier historians had carelessly excised from collective memory. New voices ring out of the historical darkness and demand attention.
The next time you hear someone complain about revisionist history, tell them historians constantly revise history. And, you must examine more than one source to obtain a full picture. That’s why I read books by various authors about the same topic. We all read and write from our personal perspective. The goal for me is to become objective as I can, a nigh impossible task, which involves critical thinking and careful reading.