I’m doing the final library work for my Bronze Age book. When working on a big research project, I always find it a little difficult to calibrate the most economical way to schedule my reading. Of course, I have to know early on what’s in the literature on the subject I’m working with. But I also like to start writing early. And I’d rather not put too much time into re-reading stuff after I’ve figured out how it’s relevant to my theme. I read some of it before I start writing, most of it while I’m writing, often at the computer, and then I inevitably save some of it until I’m almost done writing and all I’m really prepared to do is make minor additions.
I like to read roughly in reverse chronological order. That way I’ll learn about the current state of knowledge first, and also get a lot of compact summaries of previous research. Then I sort of know what the early contributors said before I read their stuff, though I can’t skip them because they may have been misrepresented by later writers. I once read a book draft where this guy had read everything in chronological order until he ran out of time, so he had covered everything in detail except the last 15 years of work on his subject. Ouch.
The bibliographies in the most recent contributions give me a map of the territory. I keep a growing list of work to check out during a project, and then a lot of it gets culled in the final phase after I’ve flipped through it. I’m a little embarrassed to be ordering so many books and journal volumes from the stacks just to return them half an hour later, but at least I help improve the library’s usage stats.
For my current book project this flip-through checking is largely because there’s a huge international literature about Bronze Age hoards, but the vast majority of works are blind to the landscape context of the find spots, which is what I’m writing about. Conversely, someone who is really into artefact typology and regional metalworking traditions will be disappointed if they open my book. But “landscape location” will be in the title.