Allan Branstiter is a writer and Ph.D. student studying U.S. History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Currently residing in Los Angeles, California, he is writing a dissertation examining the experiences of Civil War veterans in the American West. He is a veteran of the Iraq War and a former candidate for the North Dakota State Senate.
It has been twenty years since my dad received a box of magazines from a truck driver outside a plastic pipe factory in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Not every dad would accept a beaten box of glossy mags from a trucker, and even fewer would bestow said box upon their 12-year-old son. But my dad did, and in doing so kicked off what became a life-long interest in the history of the American Civil War. I remember the event vividly: Dad pulling up in his Ford Ranger just after dinner, the soft sides of a heavy cardboard box straining to contain its contents, and the colorful images of soldiers fighting and dying upon the shining covers of the innumerable issues of Civil War Times Illustrated staring back at me as I deposited them all over my bedroom floor.
Of the thousands of pages I would eventually read about the Civil War as a boy, a single page stands out in my memory more than the rest. On the final page of many issues of Civil War Times Illustrated during the early 1990s, the editors would dedicate a page to the life of individual veterans of the Civil War. One was set aside for Joseph Pierce, the adopted Chinese son of a sea captain who served in the 14th Connecticut Infantry at Gettysburg. Pierce’s image currently hangs in the Gettysburg Museum; however, few people knew about him twenty years ago. When I first discovered him, Joseph Pierce’s existence unsettled me for reasons that took me years to understand. I remember that moment clearly. Pierce’s Asian face stared up from the page at my Asian face—two brown bodies surrounded by a sea of white culture and white history.
I had very little experience reading scholarly books when I was an undergraduate, and this put me at a disadvantage when I started graduate school. A typical graduate history course requires students to read one book and two articles a week. Considering the fact that a full-time grad student is enrolled in three or four classes a semester, they can face weeks where they have to read over a thousand pages a week. Students must also produce a book review about every other week, not to mention research papers, historiographic essays, MA theses, and Ph.D. dissertations—which all require more reading. My first week of graduate history classes was so intense that I actually threw my back out reading. Let’s just say posture and orthopedics matter when you spend endless hours at a desk reading and writing.
In this post I’ll give you my thoughts on the “Art of the Grad-Read” and how I read a book quickly and efficiently. Let me start out by saying that this advice is useful to both graduate students and undergraduate students. I really wish I had known how to read a book efficiently as an undergraduate instead of wasting my time either reading a book too thoroughly or too superficially.
This brings another point to mind: this post is about reading a book quickly and efficiently, but it won’t teach you how to “speed read.” Also remember that these tips are for reading scholarly non-fiction, not novels. Reading The Great Gatsby requires a different method of reading than reading The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Finally, this method will not make you the foremost expert on any given book; instead, it aims to familiarize you enough with a book so you can discuss it in class, write a brief book review about it, and store it away in your mind for future reference. Reading a book for detail or finding leads on sources for your own research will require a different method, but this is a good place to start.
So how do graduate students read so much? Is it even humanly possible to read this many books and articles in a week? Actually, it is. And it’s really not that hard if you can break it down into a process and know exactly why you’re reading. By the time I finished my MA degree I was reading a 250-page book in about four hours. Any less than that left me feeling doubtful about my ability to talk about the book in class, and any more than that was for my own enjoyment. You’re time is invaluable to you as a graduate student, so learning how to efficiently read was central to my mental sanity and academic success during those years.
I spent most of last week writing my dissertation prospectus, so I wasn’t able to get to an idea I’ve been pondering for a few weeks. As I was working on constructing an argument about viewing the Civil War and Reconstruction era from the lens of American settler colonialism, Vann R. Newkirk at The Atlantic beat me to the punch and wrote a very good article about what professional wrestling can tell us about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. You should definitely read it. And this.And this. While Newkirk argues that Trump’s success is based on his ability to play the heel (the overtly bad guy in a storyline), I argue that The Donald fits a more recent archetype: the “anti-heel” (i.e. Stone Cold Steve Austin, C.M. Punk, and Kevin Owens).
During Marco Rubio’s triumphal bronze medal speech in Iowa he used the word “generation” seven times in less than a minute. I couldn’t help but wonder what generation he was trying to speak to. Rubio’s speech was more or less the rehearsed “New American Century” schtick he’s been polishing since last year, but last night speech was notable to me because it was an odd Frankenstein of Boomer sanctimony, Millennial idealism, and (more importantly) Gen X cynicism.
Boomer v. Millennial gets a ton of airtime these days (see: Weber, Meacham, Nentl, et al.), but this leads me to wonder if we are overlooking Generation X’s more silent influence over the 2016 Republican primary campaign? Let’s make the (wholly unscientific) case.
David Fry, the final holdout occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, surrendered to federal authorities yesterday. Before he did so, negotiators asked him what he thought Jesus would do in his situation. With the creativity and political acumen of an Ayn Rand novel, he responded with a demand for pizza and marijuana, something about U.F.O.s, and criticism for a government condones both abortions and drone strikes. Finally, after weeks of pointless bluster, artifact-fingering, and laying down weird sumo wrestling challenges to Chris Christie, Fry ate one last cookie, muttered “Alrighty then,” and exited his tent. Ammon and Randy Bundy’s dumb revolution ended with an Ace Ventura quote.
It’s easy to make light of these sagebrush constitutional scholars because their understanding of the American legal code and its history inaccurate. The fact that the likes of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly embraced, then rejected, then embraced, then rejected (maybe?) their cause also enhances its comedic value. As dumb as these protester lookwith their livefeeds, shipments of junk food, and Gadsden flags—as futile and pointless as LaVoy Finicum’s death for this cause appears—it has a very serious history.