This summer finds me thinking about how to approach a new book project. I have a sense of what I want to write about, and have been thinking about and researching the topic – or at least around it – for close to a decade. Yet how to break ground on it, and what role reading ought to play in that process, remain unsettled in my mind. This has led me to reflect more broadly on the role of reading in research, and of my own expectations of what history books can and cannot do to aid that process.
The feeling of being somewhat daunted at the start of a new research project is completely natural. Anyone who has complete an undergraduate degree – to say nothing of a PhD or book – has a sense of the process of researching and writing, and the feelings which one experiences along the way: intimidation, illumination, doubt, enjoyment, and many more. The early stages are often particularly challenging, as one feels daunted by the enormity of a task, the parameters of which have yet to become clear. At this point, books appear to offer a welcome – and legitimate – haven.
Anyone trained in the humanities and social sciences will have been impressed by the importance of ‘engaging’ with literature relevant to their research at an early stage in their training. Those of us who teach will also doubtless have encouraged student to ‘go away and read X, Y, and Z’, or to produce a literature review of some kind. Obviously I am not disputing the great worth of such writing, or the sheer enjoyment derived from reading it. Yet the process of working on this new project is causing me to re-examine whyI am reading the books I am reading, and what it is that I want to get out of the process.
Initially – and perhaps naïvely – I had sought answers to questions, new snippets of information, and other avenues to pursue in my own work. I found plenty of all of these things, but discovering these gems left me feeling no closer to being able to write than I had been months or years ago. Where the books I’ve been reading have helped, immeasurably so in some cases, is in their craft. How their authors have put them together, the ways in which they’ve thought about projects, and the artistry with which they have blended their ideas together. The views and arguments I put forward in my next book will stand or fall on my selection and reading of documents, and on my own views on particular issues. But beyond the information and argumentation they contain, these books have all helped me to think about the sort of book I want to write, and how I want to piece it together. You can’t ask for much more help from reading than that.
First on my summer list was Philips O’Brien’s How the War was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II. I’d heard a lot about this book prior to picking it up, with a number of people commenting on the innovative approach it took to assessing the impact of air/sea power on the conduct of the War. By focusing on the destruction of Axis production away from the battlefield, and illustrating how significant a proportion of German and Japanese materiel was destroyed away from the fighting itself, O’Brien undoubtedly makes a significant conceptual contribution. Few historians have succeeded in placing such emphasis upon the conduct of the War away from its totemic land battles, or in writing the history of conflict from the perspective of maritime, economic, and air power. The result is a refreshing new narrative of the War, a shift of perspective which I will seek to emulate in aspects of my own new project.
I was pleased to find that significant steps in this direction had already been made in my second read, Adam Tooze’s outstanding The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931. Aspects of Tooze’s compelling analysis of the First World War mirror the manner in which O’Brien understands the conflict of 1939-45. In particular, I was struck by the emphasis he places upon the degree of international co-operation evident in the non-military activities of the Allied & Associated Powers, and the role British shipping played in this process. His treatment of the temporal aspects of British strategy making – the issue of whether seeking a rapid ‘knock-out blow’ was actually necessary and the economic arguments against this course – was also particularly interesting, and something I’ll need to pursue further. Tooze’s ability to advance a genuinely original and provocative narrative framework was hugely impressive, and has encouraged me to pursue new ways of re-conceptualising the First World War in my own work.
My current read, which I am three-quarters of the way through and enjoying very much, is Elizabeth Greenhalgh’s Victory Through Coalition: Britain and France during the First World War. One of the many books I really ought to have read a long time ago, Greenhalgh’s enjoyable account has provided an important corrective to a series of misapprehensions I was labouring under regarding the dynamics underpinning French strategy, and Anglo-French co-operation on the Western Front and beyond.
Where, if anywhere, have these books left me? I’ve learned a lot about a number of things I thought I understood, and have discovered several others which I patently have yet to grasp. Most importantly, I loved reading these books. Hopefully people will feel the same about what I am working on, whenever the pen hits the page.
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