Erstwhile’s Caroline Grego shares her tips for putting together a thoughtful summer reading list.
What is a pre-comps graduate student in history to do with their summers? Because I began my Ph.D. just last year, I am still in a floundering-for-a-thesis-topic stage and thus have no need for summertime research trips. Because I am in the humanities and not the sciences, I have no lab that requires my labor year-round. However, I wanted to have a productive summer that furthered my own knowledge within the discipline and that would set the stage for my comps in a year and a half. As such, one of my largest tasks this summer was to make my way through a reading list. Here are a few instructional steps that show how I put together that list, what to consider while doing so, and how to work through it such that it will be useful to you and your studies.
- Keep a running list of books.
This one is pretty obvious. I did so leisurely throughout my MA (in geography, at the University of British Columbia), but because my BA was also in geography, I felt less anxiety about my grasp on the discipline’s canon. Once I arrived at Boulder and began taking graduate seminars in history, I began to realize that I had some major gaps in my knowledge of the literature. I cobbled this ongoing list from bibliographies, classmate recommendations, and advice from my adviser and other professors.
Bibliographies are rich soil. If I read a book of relevant subject matter to my interests, I always comb through the bibliography for titles to add to my book list. Pay particular attention to books that the author explicitly references throughout the text, too—chances are, there is a reason why that book was singled out for special mention. Classmates, especially Ph.D. students with a background in history, are so helpful with recommendations. It is always worthwhile to ask fellow grad students what their favorite books are, to request syallbuses from classes they’ve taken, and to see what they’ve included on their comps list. And of course, your advisor and seminar professors are always there to add to a list you’ve put together and to give advice. Take a good look at their syllabuses too: why did they choose the books they did for a class in your subject area? How do those books fit together, or demonstrate the current trends within the field? Is there a relevant theme around which they are built?
- Decide on your goals and build your topics.
My goal: to become acquainted with major titles within the discipline. As I said, I come from a BA and an MA in geography and thus needed to read a number of titles were important to my interests within history. Whatever I had not read for seminars last year, I included on my reading list. Think about your own needs: why do you need to build a reading list? What are you hoping to get out of your summer reading?
My topics: western environmental histories (fraught though the term “the West” is); histories of indigeneity in North America; African-American histories within the South. I studied “historical geography” during undergrad and my master’s, though do not ask me to specify the exact differences and bright lines between “historical geography” and “environmental history” (perhaps that is its own blog post!). This summer, I wanted to branch out into subjects that have long interested me and that intersect in important ways with the work that I have done, and to reinforce the topics that I already know well. I wanted this book list to help me figure out what I’m interested in studying within history, and so I gave myself free rein to read widely within a couple topics. While I still haven’t decided on a dissertation topic, this summer reading did help me excise a few subjects from my list of potential subject areas, discover some gaps in the literature, and expand my familiarity with relevant histories.
- Organize your reading and your thoughts.
Now that you’ve compiled your super useful book list, how should you work through it such that it will be beneficial to your studies? I suggest that you approach them as you would books for a seminar: take notes; write summaries; keep the titles and notes organized within your master list of books, whether it’s a simple notebook, an Excel spreadsheet, or a database, like Zotero. I use Zotero for all of the books I read, and I made a separate folder for my summer reading books—though each book was carefully tagged with keywords so that the folder is not isolated from the other books in my Zotero database! If nothing else, write down a few sentences that describe each book’s argument, and perhaps include a couple sentences on what you thought of the book. The goal is to retain content, understand argument, and synthesize a response.
- Enjoy what you’re reading.
A final tip: while not every book is going to be as fun as, say, binging on Orange is the New Black on Netflix, it is important that you enjoy what you are reading. Does it intrigue you? Do you want to know more? Do you feel galvanized by the books you’re reading? If you aren’t, you probably need to adjust your book list!