Hanover College, History Department. On Marginalia: Note Taking for College Students and Others Who Want to Make the Most of Their Reading Time
Making marginalia (notes or symbols written in the margins of a document) is the best way to get the most out of the time you spend reading a difficult text.
Professor Caleb McDaniel of Rice University offers some excellent advice on developing gut reactions to a text into comments that will inform your own thinking and that of your classmates.
How to Discuss a Book for History | W. Caleb McDaniel.
I recently finished listening to the unabridged audiobook version of The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left by Landon R. Y. Storrs. Not only was the book informative and persuasive, but it may herald a new kind of audiobook offering.
Back in October, William Cronon fretted that today’s readers, especially younger readers, may lack the attention span to read book-length accounts of the past, whether they are printed on paper or displayed on a screen.
Richard White ends his new book, Railroaded with an intriguing methodological claim:
Unlike economic historians, most historians have, until relatively recently, been reluctant to engage in counterfactuals on the seemingly incontrovertible grounds that what did not happen is not history. But I have come to think that the opposite is, in fact, true: we need to think about what did not happen in order to think historically. Considering only what happened is ahistorical, because the past once contained larger possibilities, and part of the historian’s job is to make those possibilities visible; otherwise all that is left for historians to do is to explain the inevitability of the present. The inevitability of the present violates the contingency of the past, which involves alternative choices and outcomes that could have produced alternative presents. To deny the contingency of the past deprives us of alternative futures, said for the present is the future’s past. Contingency, in turn, demands hypotheticals about what might have happened. They are fictions, but necessary fictions. So it is only by conceiving of alternative worlds that people in the past themselves imagined that we can begin to think historically, to escape the inevitability of the present, and get another perspective on issues that concern us still.
Ironically, Railroaded (though a very fine book in other respects) does not do a particularly good job fleshing out its counterfactuals, particularly the bit about “alternative worlds that people in the past themselves imagined.” Did Gilded Age Americans seriously consider trying to settle the West without any transcontinental railroads? Or with just one? Or with several under public ownership? Or without any public capital? White hints at all of these possibilities, but he does not explain whether there was a significant consituency behind any, or what the country would have looked like had they been pursued.
I do agree with White that we need to explore counterfactuals to understand what was at stake in any given debate. D. W. Meinig’s maps of a Greater and Lesser United States, for example, help me appreciate the gravity of the debates of the mid-19th century.