Read Up, Write, Repeat

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.

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In my case, I plan to start with the old expedient of at least skimming everything I can find in a language which I can read then writing the "previous scholarship" chapter. The closest things to a synthesis are about 20 years old, and part of my job is to bring in material from several disciplines whose practicioners don't always read each other's books and articles.

In my view, if a university doesn't want library users to keep calling things from the closed stacks or off-site storage to see if they are relevant, they should pay for adequate shelf space in the open stacks so that users can flip through the books themselves. I am a bit fierce about libraries.

I don't like previous scholarship chapters. I prefer to put the dialogue with previous contributors into the main text, divided by micro-subject. That way I may adress the same old book at several points.

The librarians never make any complaint, it's just me.

What are you writing about?

My offer on the book still stands, when you are ready.

By John Massey (not verified) on 04 Jan 2014 #permalink

The Achaemenid army. One reason why I want to write this chapter is that the current literature has some peculiar assumptions and blind spots, and that I want to make these explicit and understand how they developed. Whether this section will end up at the start of the thesis, the end of the thesis, or sliced up and spread across many chapters is unknowable.

In the countries I am most familiar with, university libraries are under financial pressure and losing constituents, but I don't know what humanists can do other than keeping up usage statistics and pushing back against further cuts.

No, but I am learning Akkadian and a bit of Sumerian. I don't think that reading Old Persian is very hard if you know Akkadian and an old Indo-European language ... each sign has a single reading and there are only 50 or so.

What I can do is bring in the works of Iranian philologists who military historians don't often read. Some scholars have tried that before and not gotten much of a response, but third time's the charm.

Cool stuff! A guest entry or two here on Aard would be much appreciated.

Hi Martin,
We have a PhD student here, Camille Shepherd, who is finishing off her thesis on the landscape location of hoards in southern Britain.
Incidentally, you asked me months back where I had taught in Scandinavia - it was in Aarhus many years ago.

By Nick.Thorpe (not verified) on 07 Jan 2014 #permalink

Martin, that is very generous, and I would be happy to take you up on that some time in the next year or so. I just have to get my preliminary reading done and figure out how to balance formal writing and online writing. I also want to make sure that I can formally defend my concerns with some existing ideas before I criticize them in public.