What I Am Currently Reading

“You can either read philosophy or write philosophy.” These were words spoken to me by my advisor back in my former life as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Maryland. I was trying to finish up my thesis, but argued that I still needed to read a few journal articles before wrapping it up. My advisor wisely pointed out that I could always read another article so it was best just to sit down and finish the thesis.

I’ve been thinking about those words recently. A number of writing opportunities have opened up for me over the past few years especially since I completed my M.A. in history last May at the University of Richmond. I am supposed to have a completed Crater manuscript and an essay on civilian morale in Virginia during the second half of 1864 finished by September. In addition, I need to plan a short trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina this summer to research the family of John C. Winsmith. I know all of this and yet I can’t tear myself away from my books. Here is what I am currently reading:

J. Matthew Gallman, America’s Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson

Brian D. McKnight, Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia

David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

In addition, I am reviewing a new collection of essays written in honor of Emory Thomas, titled Inside the Confederate Nation. The problem is that there are just too many first-rate Civil War studies out there to read. I don’t mind admitting that I enjoy reading about the Civil War much more than I enjoy writing about it. I find writing to be incredibly difficult and I constantly struggle with balancing the benefits of my voracious appetite for books with the likelihood that anything I ever publish will make a bit of difference to the field. The other problem is that as a high school teacher I simply don’t have the time to devote to research. I thought about pursuing a Ph.D which would clearly provide more time for serious research, but I now realize that I am first and foremost a high school history teacher.

All four of the books cited above are exceptional studies written by incredibly talented historians. To borrow from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin I am definitely a hedgehog in the sense that I enjoy reading about a fairly narrow subject. In contrast, the fox is someone who jumps around between subjects. While I am ultimately interested in the full range of human experience I have consciously chosen to examine it through a fairly narrow range of themes that fall within the broader subject of 19th century American history. I tend to think of history as a puzzle and the four studies cited above certainly make it easier to think of the ways the individual pieces fit together. I am beginning to make some sense of the period, but readily admit that I have a long way to go. Luckily there does not seem to be any let up in the range and quality of Civil War/American history.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

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