I JUST finished reading 220 books over eight months (roughly a book a day) in preparation for my History PhD Qualifying Exams, and now I am asking myself, beyond the content, what did I learn from it?
Firstly, I learned that if you know how to structure and defend an argument, you can write a book. There is no deeper trick to successfully creating a non-fiction book. Of course, the magic and artistry of a beautiful book and elegant theoretical proposition remain more mysterious than that, but though not everyone may be able to write a masterful book, many more of us are capable of writing a non-fiction book than we realize.
Secondly, there is a difference between active and passive reading. Traditionally, in school and in life, we learn how to read passively—we open a book and subject ourselves to its structure, narrative, and content. We read the book as the author intended, lovingly turning to each page in order. We treat it as an inviolable whole—like a symphony that you see not as separable into standalone movements but as a single work of art, meant to be experienced in full and from beginning to end. However, to read efficiently, quickly, and expertly (to read a book in one day), you must understand how an argument is structured so that you can then attack a book actively in order to master its argument. One will never remember at the end of eight months the detail of each page, so one accepts from the outset that that is not the goal.
You read the introduction and the conclusion first, you identify the theoretical premise/framework of the book, you identify the argument and sub-arguments, you hone in on the portion of the evidence base and argumentation you are interested in (those are the ones you’re likely to remember and have a stake in), you go straight to those chapters, and then the next day you move on to the next book. The entire time you read you are setting the pace and order. When you start to ‘get’ the sub-argument of one chapter and its general thrust, you move on to the next. You also, crucially, are anticipating the weak spots of the author’s argument and argumentation. You read with a critical eye to everything, while also being sure to fully appreciate that the author spent a great deal of time researching this topic (unlike yourself) and should be given the benefit of the doubt. But, you also think about why the author wrote the book and to which other books he’s responding.
Understanding the context and predecessors of a book will help you master it much more quickly—for example, knowing that a book was written during the full swing of American involvement in the Vietnam War while never explicitly stated in the book except in its publication date printed in small numbers on the inside cover, may allow you to understand the political motivations of the author in writing the book.
Lastly, reading (particularly such a quantity and over such duration, with little else going on in your life because you no longer have a life) is a dialogue with oneself, and in this dialogue you can begin to go a little stir crazy. At some points, you will never be able to “settle into” a book unless every physical condition is right: the right amount of light, the right temperature, the right level of comfort, the right amount of caffeine. Your skin needs to be fully lotioned. Your emails all have to be read. Your desk needs to be clean. In fact, often your entire apartment needs to be clean or suddenly you’re on your hands and knees waxing the hardwood floor because you just can’t concentrate on the reading while the floor looks like that. Making yourself still enough to just sit there and read, unbroken and undistracted, day after day, requires a zen-like inhabitation of the present that is utterly elusive and completely unsustainable for most humans.
You realize quickly that there is so much you don’t know of the past, present, future—so many worlds contained, removed, omnipresent. They exist all around you in the subterranean histories to your present, and you feel your smallness and bigness in comparison to these unknowns—every rumble of your stomach in the stillness of your reading feels momentous, urgent. You get to the point where simply reading the Acknowledgments section of a book brings you to tears, and you perhaps wax a little too poetic discussing the Table of Contents in your mind. It may sound crazy, but all one has to do is read the words Apolinario Mabini wrote in the beginning of The Philippine Revolution to understand suddenly, what it means for a thing to be a labor of love. After such an opening, how could anyone resist what follows?
“To my mother:
When, still a child, I told you that I wanted to acquire learning, you were overjoyed because your heart’s desire was that a son of yours should be a priest; to be a minister of God was for you the greatest honor that a man could aspire to in this world.
Realizing that you were too poor to meet the expenses of my education, you worked as hard as you could, heedless of sun and rain, until you caught the illness that took you to your grave.
But I was not fated to be a priest. I am, however, convinced that the true minister of God is not one who wears a cassock, but everyone who proclaims His glory by good works, of service to the greatest possible number of His creatures, and I shall endeavor to be faithful to your desires as long as I have the strength to do so.
Now, wishing to place on your grave a wreath woven by my own hands, I dedicate this humble work to your memory; it is a poor thing, unworthy of you, yet the best so far woven by the artless hands of your son.”
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University