Richardson's Rules of Order, Part IV: How to Read for a College History Course

In an essay on
"Success" Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "'Tis the good reader that makes the good book; a good head cannot read amiss: in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakeably meant for his ear." Careful reading is difficult to master. Undergrads in history find it tough to get that kernel of truth buried deep in a document. Others search long and hard for the thesis in a haystack with little luck.

In this installment of Richardson's Rules of Order, Heather Cox Richardson gives advice to college students on close reading. She poses some crucial questions students should consider when they make their way through that microfilmed newspaper article, court record, diary entry, novel, census record, television program, or monograph.

How to Read for a College History Course
Heather Cox Richardson

There are two types of sources in history: primary sources and secondary sources. They should be approached very differently.

Primary sources are things produced at the time. Letters, photographs, census records, songs, movies, advertisements, newspapers, TV shows, paintings, emails, and books are all examples of primary sources. Primary sources tell historians about the world at a certain time, and how people who lived then saw their world.

When you read a primary source, you need to read every word very carefully. You want to figure out who produced the source, and for whom it was written. A letter from a Confederate prisoner of war to his elderly father describing the black Union soldiers who had captured him would be very different than the memo from the black soldiers’ captain commending their actions, and neither would exactly reflect what had happened. (Think about it—a letter to your grandmother describing a day of college life would be a very different thing than a letter to your best friend describing the exact same day and, again, neither would be one hundred percent accurate).

Why was the document—or film, or canvas—produced? When James McLaughlin wrote his book My Friend the Indian (1910) was he trying to excuse his role in the murder of Sitting Bull? When Frank Triplett wrote The Life, Times, and Treacherous Death of Jesse James (1882) was he attacking the Republican government that controlled Missouri and the rest of the nation in the 1880s? The answer to both of these questions is yes, and as a result both authors strongly slanted their telling of events. No one produces anything without a bias, so you need to know the author’s agenda when s/he produced the source, to give you some sense of what can and can’t be learned from the document. McLaughlin is fairly reliable about mid-nineteenth-century Lakota treaties, while Triplett is reliable only for giving us an excellent picture of how ex-Confederates perceived the postwar Republican government.

When and where was the primary source written? A Southern version of Reconstruction written in 1868 would be dramatically different than one written in 1890, just as a letter to a friend about an exciting new job would be very different after five years of overwork, underpay, and an eventual sacking during a downsizing, even though both letters were about the same job and were written only five years apart.

Finally, a question most students have trouble answering: What does the source say? What can we learn from it about the time in which it was written? This will be much easier to decipher once you know the “who, when, where, and why.” Think, for example, of Jimi Hendrix’s famous version of the Star Spangled Banner performed at Woodstock in 1969.
Without any context except a knowledge of rock and roll history, his version has meaning for guitar fans, but someone who had never heard of Hendrix, or the song, or the era would probably dismiss the piece altogether as “a bunch of utter garbage,” as a student once called it when we listened to it in class. With a knowledge of the history of the song as the nation’s anthem, Hendrix’s position as America’s premier guitarist at a time when African Americans and Native Americans were demanding rights in the nation, the context of the Vietnam War, and both domestic and international challenges to America’s stratified society, and the story of Woodstock, it becomes a vital piece of America’s history.

Secondary sources are things written after the period, which analyze primary sources to make an argument about how we should interpret the events of the past. In history courses, secondary sources will usually be books or articles, but they can also be documentaries or websites.

You read a secondary source very differently than you do a primary source. Your goal in reading a secondary source is to discover the author’s argument, and to see what evidence s/he marshals to support that thesis. Once you have a handle on the argument and its evidence, you need to analyze whether or not you buy the argument, and why you’ve taken your position.

To read a secondary source, begin with the introduction, even if the professor has not assigned it and has asked you to read only a chapter or two of the book. Historians tend to say what they’re going to say, then to say it, then to say what they’ve said. Introductions almost always lay out the argument of the book. Once you’ve read the introduction, skip to the conclusion, looking again for the argument of the book. In the conclusion, an author usually summarizes the book’s thesis. Stay in the introduction and conclusion until you are certain of the book’s argument.

Once you know what an author is up to, read the body of the book. The most efficient way to do that is to read the introduction and conclusion of each chapter, to see how the argument progresses, and then to go back to the beginning of the book and move through it, reading the topic sentence of each paragraph. By now you should have a very clear idea of how the book works and how the argument develops. You can now go back and read the book to see how the author uses evidence to support his or her points. Check footnotes sometimes, especially if something seems forced. Is the source a solid one, or does it seem insufficient to support the point it makes?

This is a different way of reading than you are accustomed to, and it will seem awkward at first. It’s worth developing the skill to do it this way, though. This is by far the most efficient way to read secondary sources in history (and many other subjects), and will give you the best command of the material in the shortest time. Remember, what matters is not how many hours you spend reading, but whether or not you actually understand what you read. A student once told me proudly that he had taken all day Saturday and Sunday to read every single word of a book I had assigned although he didn’t understand any of it. Personally, I can’t think of a more thorough waste of a weekend. Please recognize—as he didn’t—that simply passing your eyes over the letters on a page is not a good use of your time.

Once you have command of the book, think about it. Do you agree with it? Did the author make his or her point by using factual evidence that supported the conclusion? If not, what seemed wrong? Did s/he make a sweeping argument about nineteenth-century American society and use evidence only from a few decades? Did s/he put into footnotes critical information that contradicted the argument in the text? Does the argument seem radically different than prevailing thought? Does it appear forced, without adequate and believable sources? Does it seem to make assumptions about the past in order to fit a specific theory? Or does the book seem to make a solid argument about the past that illuminates the way society works? Do you agree with the argument? Does it change the way you think about things?

Thinking about a book doesn’t have to take place at a desk. It’s a good way to take up time when you’re walking somewhere, or doing repetitive exercise, or even going on long drives. Make thinking about your studies part of your life. This, too, will be a habit that takes some effort to acquire, but will stand you in very good stead in the future, when you’ll have work issues that require more thought than you can give them during work hours.

See previous posts for more Richardson's Rules of Order.