Reading for Pleasure during a History PhD

Studying for a PhD in history requires a lot of reading. This statement will surprise no-one, least of all those of us who languish in the dungeons of the doctoral enterprise, buried under an ever-growing pile of secondary literature. We are required to read an enormous volume of material in the course of primary source research and historiographical reconnaissance. And rightly so. The problem is that this work is open-ended. It can just take over, and before you know it you are reading around your subject for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and the chance of reading for pleasure seems a distant memory. If I possessed one, I would wager a small fortune on every history PhD student being a fan of reading in the wider sense of reading for pleasure, if only the opportunity would present itself. Academic reading and less serious reading are cousins, albeit cousins from a disjointed family. Most people invested in the former are doubtless fans of the latter. The chance to read non-academic books is, however, limited by the strictures and expectations of modern-day doctoral life. Walking the corridors of the Larkin Building, or venturing into the post-grad room in the library, leads to various encounters with research students whose standout characteristics are blank staring eyes and expressions of dull, numb panic. ‘There is SO much to do!!!!’

So reading for pleasure is, or so I have found, one of first things to fall before the rising tide of research, manuscripts and historiography, along with cooking and sport. It seems a waste a time, or a guilty pleasure. Surely, if I am reading, I should be reading about the minutiae of local law-enforcement in the middle ages, or the latest tiresome debate over a loosely-related topic in an academic journal? This problem has, I think, grown exponentially in the last few decades, if only because of the increasing number of academics and early career researchers and the increasing ‘outputs’ required of them. The sheer volume of historiography has grown at an enormous rate, and we should read everything germane to our topic. Faced with such pressures, weekends and evenings become a space not for picking up the latest novel of choice, as I would have done when I was at school if no better call on my time offered itself, but for catching up with all the articles and monographs I haven’t been able to read yet. I will give an example which will resonate with many: in my first year of doctoral research, after spending nine hours at the library looking at manuscripts online, I got back to my room and found myself reading G.R. Elton’s The Tudor Revolution in Government, because I convinced myself that that is what I ought to be doing. As those who have encountered Elton’s formidable volume will know, it is not bedtime reading. As a work of academic history: marvellous, provocative, profoundly influential. As a piece of evening reading: ill-advised.

It was not always thus. Before the later decades of the twentieth-century, I believe that lighter academic pressures combined with the relative paucity of published studies to allow far more time to pursue pleasurable reading. It is extremely hard to conceive J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, spending decades drafting and re-drafting The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings whilst holding full-time academic posts at the Universities of Leeds and Oxford in this day and age. But he managed it.[1] Similarly, the great medievalist K.B. McFarlane (d. 1966) found time for reading books other than those which revealed the working of later medieval society to his penetrating mind. McFarlane’s history library can be seen still in Magdalen College, Oxford. It is majestic, an awe-inspiring collection enlivened by his savage marginal annotations. McFarlane worked as hard on his history as anyone can be expected too. It contributed to his frequent bouts of ill-health and probably to his early death.[2] His English library, however, was just as large and just as impressive, and in his letters he discusses works of literature as well as works of history.

We can learn something from this. If McFarlane of all people found time to read for pleasure, then so should we. And it is not simply a question of relaxation, although that is extremely important and a worthy end in itself. Reading fiction or whatever can help with prose, with style, with inspiration. Modern academic books are saturated with information, weighed down with footnotes, burdened with the crushing pressure of meeting academic standards. This has to be the case. But they are not fun to read, on the whole. Their purpose almost invariably nullifies the possibility of writing a page-turner. One way to try to combat this, thus perhaps preventing the reader’s mind from collapsing in on itself at the thought of 250 more pages of closely argued converted doctoral-thesis, is to read books which do have wonderful prose. This provides both a break and a subconscious lesson. My second fictional small fortune will go on the wager that the writers of wonderfully written history books read a lot of non-academic books too. Good writers read good writers. Maurice Keen’s Chivalry, for example, is an academic book of tremendous importance that is written in such an engaging style that it cannot have been created purely from a mind whose sole focus had been to read as much academic history as possible for the last four years, until his funding ran out. For myself, I have made a concerted effort in the last few months to read things outside of the academic history. I am currently reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, which recalls his travels through Europe (mostly on foot) as a young man. Passages like the following, on walking through a snowstorm to an inn on the Danube, abound:

‘In cold weather like this,’ said the innkeeper of a Gastwirtschaft further down, ‘I recommend Himbeergeist.’ I obeyed and it was a lightning conversion. Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost – this crystalline distillation, twinkling and ice-cold in its misty goblet, looked as though it homoeopathically in league with the weather. Sipped or swallowed, it went shuddering through its new home and branched out in patterns – or so it seemed after a second glass – like the ice-ferns that covered the window panes, but radiating warmth and happiness instead of cold, and carrying a ghostly message of comfort to the utmost fimbria. Fierce winters give birth to their antidotes: Kümmel, Vodka, Aquavit, Danziger Goldwasser. Oh for a thimble full of the cold north!’

pp.163-4.

Enjoyment of such a passage is, of course, a question of taste but the point is that reading books like that make me want to write, in a way that very few academic books can match. Generally, reading is about relaxation and about inspiration. Both are integral to writing a satisfying thesis. That is why we should try and carve out a small part of our weeks to read books for fun. On this small matter, we should feel justified in re-winding the clock and putting aside the stacks of journals, databases, drafts and plans for a good book, if only for a few minutes. Both we and our work could reap the benefits.

Matt Raven

PhD Candidate at the University of Hull: ‘The Earls of Edward III, 1330-60’

[1] Indeed, to judge from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. H. Carpenter (London, 1981), I am inclined to conclude that more time was spent on the world of Middle Earth than on Gawain and the Green Knight or any of his other academic ventures.

[2] See Letters to Friends, 1940-66 by K.B. McFarlane (Magdalen College, 1997) for an intimate portrayal.

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