The other day one of my readers inquired as to whether I “only acquire books from university presses.” I’ve addressed this issue in the past, but it is worth spending a few minutes revisiting. It’s a fair question given that the overwhelming majority of Civil War titles that I list in these posts are from university presses. By extension, the same holds true for my Civil War library as a whole. That fact alone, however, won’t tell you much about my reading habits. I am going to tread lightly here given that some of us can get pretty defensive when it comes to our reading preferences and interests. While I love a good history narrative my primary interests in the area of Civil War studies are books that are analytically driven. Yes, I want it to be readable, but I also want to be engaged and challenged by a good argument. I prefer books that are heavy on theory and conceptual analysis and light on traditional narrative.
I gravitate toward historians who are going to add something significant to my understanding of the period or challenge what I already believe. In the area of military history I prefer a Glenn David Brasher or George Rable over a Stephen Sears. If I am going to read a biography I prefer something along the lines of Keith Dickson’s new book about Douglas Southall Freeman. Yes, most of these folks have gone through graduate programs in history and tend to teach in a college or university. No, you don’t necessarily have to have proceed in such a fashion, but for those who do the result is an understanding of a subject and possession of a skill that is unlikely to occur elsewhere. This is not meant as a slight to anyone in particular or to anyone’s preferences. I happen to love the work of Sears. In the end, it comes down to what one is hoping to learn from the inquiry itself. I’ve been reading Civil War studies long enough to have a pretty good grasp of the historiography and my interests tend to revolve around certain questions that I find intriguing and that have shaped the field over time. When something new comes out I can evaluate it based on the quality of the interpretation as well as where it fits into the broader field. Quite often a well argued book shows me something important beyond the Civil War period and even beyond the study of history itself.