For a while now, I have struggled with actually getting myself to sit down and do the reading I need to do in order to move forward with my research and writing. It is a struggle many writers of nonfiction and research-laden fiction will understand. I find this part of the whole research/writing process to be rather tedious. I love the initial research stage, when I get to immerse myself in library catalogues and tumble down the rabbit hole of my topic, gathering and skimming interesting articles and relevant books. But when the time comes to actually sit down and systematically read through the enormous amount of material I’ve collected, write organized notes, and—well—remember the information in a coherent and useful manner, then I suddenly find myself thinking of all sorts of other things I could do, like vacuum, or laundry, or check my email. It takes some serious discipline for me to get started on the reading, but once I do, I generally find myself enjoying it quite a bit. So you would think I would learn to just get to it faster… but I haven’t yet.
Recently, I’ve encountered yet another stumbling block that has halted my research in its tracks. The problem is that I can’t figure out which version of a book to read. I know I need to read the book, and I’m actually quite excited about reading this one, but for the life of me I can’t figure out if I should read the electronic version or the paper version. I know I need to commit to one or the other, but every time I try to decide, I spin myself into a tizzy of pros and cons.
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It is an interesting exercise to read with writing in mind. Even if a book you are reading is amazing and brilliant, it is still worthwhile as a writer to think about how you would have written it differently. With this in mind, in this post I compare and contrast to great biographies I read recently, paying attention to the ways in which the biographer chose to write his story, and imagine how I would have done things differently…
Over the past year, I have become increasingly interested in the genre of biography, and am considering writing a biography for my next project. I have therefore embarked on what is quite possibly the most delightful stage of writing history: the vague undefined research stage during which you don’t actually have anything you have to read. In essence, that means I get to read whatever I want. Over time my reading list will narrow, focus, and get infinitely longer, but for now I am enjoying this phase.
I decided to start by reading lots of biographies, limited only by whether I was interested in them or not—biographies of men and women, of people long dead and still alive, of scientists, politicians, military generals, artists, intellectuals, and adventurers. The purpose of this eclectic study of biography is to gather a broad awareness of how biographers treat their subjects within the context of their time, how biographers create a powerful narrative given the already determined story arc of an individual’s life, and how biographers handle the varying amount and quality of sources available to them.
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One of the best bits of advice I’ve ever gotten about writing came from my PhD advisor. He is a fountain of wisdom and catchy phrases, and over the years I’ve taken his suggestions to heart. A few in particular cross my mind on a regular basis, as I’m battling this challenge or that problem in my research and writing.
My PhD was in History so I spend just as much time (if not more) researching as I do writing. Hours, days, and weeks will easily pass with me devouring every book, article, and document I can find on my topic. As a historian of science and medicine, my research material includes scientific papers published in journals such as Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Science. Although interesting and relevant to my topic, these papers tend to be written in the classically straightforward and—let’s be honest—dry tones of science-speak.
I am currently writing a book on the history of the department of research at Philip Morris, so I also read a lot of primary sources on the inner workings of the tobacco industry: meeting minutes, research reports, budgets, and memos on all sorts of mind-numbing topics as equipment orders, new hires, and construction plans.
Sometimes, when I’m in the depth of my research, I find myself talking in memo-inspired sentences, thinking in spreadsheets, and—worst of all—writing in the same tone as my research material.
When I notice that happening, I remember my old advisor’s advice.
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This week, the world lost one of its greatest voices when Maya Angelou passed away on May 28 at age 86. After hearing the news, we spent some time reading back over some of my favorite poems of hers. There were some beautiful tributes published in a variety of magazines and newspapers, but we’ve chosen our three favorites for this week’s weekly roundup of articles that had us thinking.
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This week’s recap focuses on some of our favorite books, articles, and stories that we’ve read that have had us thinking and talking.
Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Biography
John Adams by David McCullough
Brianna says, “I’ve been reading this book for a while now, but this week I managed to find some good reading time. Suddenly, I find myself perilously close to the end of this beautifully written and expertly told biography of our second president. David McCullough is a master of characterization and has made me fall completely in love with John and Abigail Adams. I know in what years each of them died, and as I inch closer and closer to their inevitable demise I find myself reading more and more slowly. I can’t bear the thought of parting ways with this wonderful couple!”
“Home Fires: How Solders Write Their Wars,” by George Packer in The New Yorker (April 2014)
It took us a while to finally getting around to reading through this whole article, but it was absolutely worth the wait. Packer’s excellent piece explores how war literature has changed from World War I to the present, from Wilfred Owen to Kevin Powers. Packed full of poetry and prose, the article is both a fascinating literary history and a thoughtful literary criticism of one of the most powerful and historically brilliant genres of writing.
“The Dogs of War,” by Michael Paterniti in National Geographic Magazine (June 2014)
There was a brief scene in the Academy-Award winning film Zero Dark Thirty that showed U.S. SEAL Team Sixteen boarding helicopters for their mission into Pakistan to assassinate Osama Bin Ladin. It happens quickly, but in that scene, you can see a military dog boarding the helicopter along with his human teammates. We were immediately fascinated and spent some time researching military working dogs, so we were thrilled when this month’s issue of National Geographic featured an excellent article on the dogs and handlers of the canine units.
During my last year of graduate school (I was doing a PhD in History) I started reading The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, by David Hoffman.
The Dead Hand, by David Hoffman, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
At the time, I was struggling with the Introduction to my dissertation: How to even start an Introduction? How do you write one without sounding dull or pretentious or repetitive? How can you be clear and concise, but also manage to demonstrate everything you’ve ever learned on a topic? How do you introduce a book so that your readers keep reading?
I took a break from writing one day. I was working from home and sat down in my living room—in my favorite chair by the window—with a cup of coffee. My mom had recommended Hoffman’s book to me and I had been meaning to read it for a while. As I sat there, completely uninspired, I decided to start the book. At the very least, I hoped, reading a Pulitzer Prize winning history would help me find inspiration for my own history.
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Before we start thinking about our favorite books we’ve read this year (so far), we thought we’d take a look back at our favorite books we read in 2013.
1. Persuasion, by Jane Austen
There is nothing quite as delightful as vanishing into Jane Austen’s world. Better yet if you read with a cup of tea. Persuasion was Austen’s final completed novel. A bit more biting and scathing, perhaps, than her earlier works, it features Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth as star-crossed lovers who hurt each other a great deal before eventually realizing they were meant to be together.
“She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! alas! she must confess to herself that she was not wise yet.” —Jane Austen
2. Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, by Peter L. Bergen
This captivating page-turner about the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden is one of the most gripping books I’ve ever read. Written by journalist Peter Bergen, the book takes you inside various intelligence agencies, the White House Situation Room, and military bases, and along the dusty streets of Pakistan.
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