Saturday, May 3, 2014

Reading Really Detailed Stuff

There is something about immersing oneself in an intricately detailed book. I am currently reading James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham. I will use this as an example. This biography is 671 pages long, not including endnotes. These 671 pages are not conventional pages. They are large and dense. I would estimate that had this book been formatted like most books, it would run well over one thousand pages. The work goes into minute examinations and analyses of all sorts of topics concerning both Madison and his period and place.

For instance, Madison’s time studying at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, is covered in great depth. Examining these years in Madison’s life is indeed important, as several of America’s Founders attended this institution during this time. The philosophy and theology espoused and taught there by its president, John Witherspoon at that time, had a significant impact on these men as well as upon the Revolution itself. Though the College of New Jersey figured somewhat importantly in other works that I have read concerning this era, none has delved as deeply as Ketcham’s book. Other authors, including the biographers of other attendees, have appropriately emphasized the college’s influence, but have provided only a fraction of information that this work does. This book explores and analyzes the philosophy, politics and theology, in serious detail, to which Madison and others were exposed. It devotes many pages to the actual works of the philosophers and historians that were taught and that Madison read. Finally, Ketcham even describes living arraignments, dietary habits, student hijinks, etc., that characterized attendance at the school. This is just one chapter in a twenty-two-chapter book.

I must point out that The American Revolutionary period is my “thing.” Approximately twenty percent of all of my reading is dedicated to the subject. I intentionally chose Ketcham’s book over shorter and less detailed biographies because I hungered for the detail.

In my younger days this is the kind of book that I would begin, make it through a hundred or so pages, become bored and never finish. I can say with confidence that, being about two hundred pages in at the time of this writing, I will not only finish, but I will enjoy every page. As I have gotten older, I have changed. When it comes to reading, at least, I have developed much patience. I have learned that reading and learning is a journey and not a means to a destination. Furthermore, a certain type of curiosity has grown in me. Not just the curiosity derived from wanting to know about a person like Madison and his times, but a curiosity to understand and ponder the details, the real nitty-gritty stuff, concerning various subjects. I now take great joy in drilling deep down like this.

I believe that for a serious reader, detailed and intricate reading of this sort is essential. Of course, I would not look to read such a book on just any topic. For instance, lately I have been delving just a wee bit into literary criticism and theory. I wanted to get a basic introduction on that subject and maybe read some seminal works. I would never look for this much depth on that or on many other topics. However, as I mentioned, the American Revolutionary era is a kind of life concentration for me. Furthermore, Madison is a vital figure out of this time and place, one who, to some extent, I have neglected until now.

Compared to most history books, this one obviously embodies great depth. Though this is the sort of book that one might only read occasionally, I think that this sort of book really should be read occasionally.

There are, of course, other areas where I yearn to dig as deep. Certain forms of literature and philosophy come to mind. Part of the challenge is picking and choosing. Sadly, there is insufficient time in life to delve into everything that I want to at this level. Thus, I have made conscious decisions to stay closer to the surface in some areas. As it is, I feel that I am not devoting enough reading time to the areas that I want to. I must limit my interests!

The joys of such meticulous works are understandably not something that everyone will appreciate. For a good chunk of my life, I found it impossible. I can attribute my ability to tackle such books partially as the result of getting a little older. However, I observe lots of younger people who, unlike the way that I was, are prepared for such intellectual challenges without needing to wait. I for one am glad that I have evolved to this point. As the old saying goes, better late then never!


seraillon said...

There's a long piece in The Guardian this week by novelist Will Self about the purported death of the novel, and in it he makes the argument that few people are willing to tackle "difficult" books (this is not an endorsement of that piece). One of the reasons I appreciate book bloggers is the steady counter-argument to this proposition that is offered, as in your post today. I find it reassuring to see just how many readers do indeed "dig deep," and find it rewarding.

I'm often struck by how a difficult work, once one has read it, seems far more understandable when one re-reads it. Anyway, thanks for the encouragement.

Suko said...

It does sound as if this long, detailed biography of James Madison is a very interesting and enjoyable read for you. I don't think I had the patience for very long books when I was younger, either. Now, the pages seem to fly by, especially if I'm enjoying a book. (I wouldn't mind reading long biographies on Ben Franklin or Abe Lincoln.)

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian, from reading past discussions here, I do know you love the Revolutionary era :) This kind of dense and involved read, sounds like a good one for you, especially if you really want to sink your teeth into something like this.
It's nice to challenge ourselves intellectually, and like you say, better late than never.
Great post! Happy Sunday.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott -I will check out that piece. It sounds really interesting.

Agreed about the blogs. I think that the digital age drives things in both directions. The attention spans of many folks has been eroded.Yet folks who want deeper stuff can come together online through blogs and other platforms.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - The patience with age thing is interesting. Some folks have told me that they have had the opposite experience. That is they have less patience for long detailed books.

Detailed biographies can be fulfilling. I never read one about Lincoln. I found the mid length Benjamin Franklin: An American Life to be enjoyable and competent though not outstanding. A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America by Stacy Schiff was outstanding though it only covers Franklin's time in France. I have not read The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon Wood but some say that is the biography to read.

Harvee said...

I salute you for tackling such a challenging but worthwhile book!
Book Dilettante

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Yes I am indeed enjoying this book.

I am really into this particular kind of intellectual challenge. That is the kind of challenge that is not work related and no one but myself is really watching.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Thanks Harvee - As much as I am enjoying it, the level of detail is indeed a little challenging. Especially when it focuses on an area of Madison's life that may be a little less interesting for me.

Anonymous said...

I have mixed views about these books. They're good for knowledgeable people like you. I had to google James Madison to know who you were writing about and I'm sure that I'd get lost in the sea of details if I were to try this book.
Perhaps you enjoy them now not because you're older but because you've accumulated enough knowledge about the period to enjoy the details and not lose sight of the key facts.

I tend to avoid big books. I hate to see a book linger for weeks (or months) on my night stand. And that's what always happen when I start one of those. When I have more reading time I'll read the huge Russian novels and Trollope's work.


James said...

This sounds like a great biography about one of the most important of our 'founding fathers'.
I was fortunate to visit Montpelier a couple of years ago. Just standing in Madison's study where he had done much of his thinking was a moving experience.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - I would say that a boom like this is not for most but only if one were really interested in the period. There are plenty of things, including historical periods that I would not want to delve anywhere near this deeply.

The limited number of Russian novels that I have read are so different from Trollope. They are indeed dense. Trollope's boos, while sometimes long, are so readable and fun that I put them into a different category, They do not seem as long as they are.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I am further along then I was went I write this. It is a great biography but the detail can get overwhelming.

I think that many do not realize what a deep thinker he was.

Heidi’sbooks said...

Brian, this is a little off topic but this past week I was privileged to go to the newly opened library at Mt. Vernon. You would have been enamored! It's not open to the public, only to those given special permission for research. I was invited to a senior history presentation where the student are writing articles for the new digital library there. One striking thing about the books in the library--volume after volume of the writings of the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson had 40 volumes. Hamilton had volumes and volumes (can't remember exactly) and right down the line-- Washington had an entire wall of books of his writings; Madison, Marshall, George Mason, all of them. You could spend a life time reading just one of the founders' writings. I knew they wrote a lot, but it was almost overwhelming to think of studying them individually.

Can you imagine if we had political leaders who thought through their arguments and wrote them down weekly or daily? The contrast is stark.

Thanks for the encouragement to continue on with The Iliad!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - That is an awesome place! I know a few professional historians and an archivist who dig through such stuff all the time. Interesting work indeed.

I think that it was the historian Nancy Isenberg who remarked something to the effect that America's Founders were the most prolific writers when compared to national leaders anywhere or at any time.

Good point about today's politicians. I actually blame the public. If a politician attempted to theorize in writing the extent that the Founders did, every idea and opinion that they expressed, whether good, bad or in between would come under relentless and withering attack. Such a politician would thus find it impossible to get elected to national office. Our society rewards the politician who keeps his or her head down and is evasive in terms of specifics. In terms of ideas relating to Freedom and Liberty, everyone just repeats those words with very little thought or analysis as to what they mean in or how they should be applied.

Glad that you are conquering those Greeks and Trojans!

Richard said...

As a onetime history concentrator and as somebody who actually read a ton of history and other nonfiction prior to blogging, I often find myself kind of appalled at how little history reading I make time for these days in the grand scheme of things. Luckily for me, though, Brian, I can salute your post with an, ahem, comradely spirit as I'm finally about at the 3/4 mark into a great 800+ page tome on the Russian Revolution. Agree that the sort of "really detailed" reading you touch on here is good for the soul so to speak and brings its own rewards in compensation for the reader's "plodding" patience. Cheers!

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

You're right, as we age, our interests change and we change as well. The writer who taught me patience was John Irving, and after enjoying A Widow for One Year and In One Person I became a fan.
"My thing" is horror and fantasy (the latter being a recently acquired taste) but in the future I believe my preferences will grow to encompass a broader range of authors and genres.
Speaking of pushing one's boundaries, I plan on reading David Foster's Wallace "The Pale King", something I would probably never have picked on my own, but having friends with different literary tastes is a good thing. :) I'm looking forward to reading it this year.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - I too sometimes despair at the lack of time that I put into reading. I made personal choice to forgo all television in order to make time to read.

One thing that helps me get through such books is the realization hat I am not in race.

Have fun and good luck with that Russian history book!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Horror and fantasy is a great thing to be into. We all need to concentrate on something.

I Googled The Pale King. It looks like a book that I would really like. The themes seem interesting. I look forward to your commentary on it.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

I think it takes a certain kind of reader to take on and appreciate such works. For myself whilst every now and then I will immerse myself in such literature I tend to read largely for escapism.

Great review as always Brian, thanks.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - As I figure that reading is my number one lifetime hobby that I may as we'll give it a big effort. With some folks it is golf, or fishing or music, etc.

JaneGS said...

I admire your ability to concentrate your serious reading on a topic/period so that you really can go deep. I tend to be a dabbler myself and never feel like I really "know" any one topic.

I remember reading a monster book on Jefferson when I was about 20 and I finished it but I think every day of that man's life was documented!

I don't know much about Madison myself--I kind of skipped from Jefferson to Jackson, and have short-changed Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - As I think that you can tell from my blog I do a lot of dabbling myself. I just feel the need to spend some time concentrating.

Have no fear on Madison, I will be posting a more comprehensive entry on this one:)

Violet said...

It's interesting how we can concentrate on very complex writing about a subject that really interests us, but if we're not slightly obsessed with it, our eyes glaze over. It seems to me that a lot of us are in a rush these days, rather than taking time to sip and savour books: it think the latter is the best kind of reading. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Agreed.

I am in a rush when it comes to many things, but, as my prime hobby, I have chosen to do reading right!

Caroline said...

I have a problem when biographies focus too much on one period, especially the childhood years. Other than that - when it's a perosn I'm really fascinated with - it can't be too detailed. I had much more patience when I was younger, read far more demanding books, unlike you. Maybe that's quite odd.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I actually think that I am the unusual one. Based upon things that other folks tell me it seems that most people say they have less for books as they get older. Personally I have less patience for just about everything else.

I also must admit that also often I find the childhood part the least interesting of biographies.

So many books, so little time said...

Wow, I always find myself getting swept up with your reviews and think I could maybe read something like this. As you have seen from my site my reading is almost always fiction of the horror/crime/chick lit variety so this would be a big big leap for me. If I ever manage to go there however I always feel I come away from here having expanded my reading a little, even if only living through your thoughts and take on the material :)


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - thanks so much for your kind words.

I think that you are selling your reading tastes a little short. Just recently off the top of my head I recall you blogging about multiple books like the Susanna Clark book that are substantial.

Either way one should read what they enjoy.

So many books, so little time said...

Ah that one was one a doctor friend recommended to me, however I did quite enjoy it. Guess I am so used to reading the horror and crime I forget I sometimes step out but don't feel they are anything like this :)


Lindsay said...

I love how you say you've 'hungered for the detail' and will definitely read every page. I find myself more and more keen to read longer works now/in the future, whereas in the recent past I've been unsure whether I can finish them and become truely absorbed. If you get really immersed in a book like this though, i think it's a wonderful feeling.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - As I mentioned there was a time when I had trounle finishing longer works. One way to look at it that helps is that whether one moves on to another book or not, one is still reading. Why not get a lot out of what one is currently. Reading and do it right? Of course it all needs to be fun or it is not worth it.

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Maria Behar said...

I love your passion for and dedication to the American Revolutionary period,and it makes me want to delve more deeply into the subject myself! I think that's because you make it sound so fascinating in your posts!

I tend to read fiction mostly dealing with fantasy and paranormal events (especially related to romance), but, from time to time, do like to read nonfiction. Even there, though, my interests lie in the otherworldly, the mystical. I should really try to balance my reading with some history, since, when I have done so in the past, I have been totally fascinated. I did enjoy my American History classes in high school. I remember, however, being fascinated by the American Civil War period, and especially by Lincoln.

I don't know anything about Madison, to be honest with you. Well, you make me want to find out more, not only about him, but about the period he and other famous Revolutionary Americans lived in! So I thank you for that!

As for your statement (and thanks for your honesty!) about not enjoying the reading of very long books when you were younger, I can tell you that I can tolerate them -- to a point. As you might remember, I attempted to read "Anna Karenina" some time back, and just couldn't get through it. It seemed, in my honest opinion, that Tolstoy had attempted to sandwich a nonfiction book right into his novel. There were so many digressions! Some dealt with the political and economic situation of the time, while others dealt with -- of all things -- the agricultural methods then in use!! AAARRRGGHHHH!! And then there was the subject matter of the novel -- infidelity. I really should have known better than to read a novel dealing with this topic.....due to my own life experiences.

I do enjoy reading longer works, but only if they really do succeed in holding my interest. And example of such works is Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings". Oh, what bliss, reading this lengthy masterpiece!!

Anyway....after this rather long digression on my own part, I'd simply like to add that I need to really do some reading about this crucially important period in American History, and other periods in that history, as well.

As always, thanks for the great commentary!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks again for your kind words.

No need to apologize. I love your detailed comments.

I will say that not many are as interested in this period as I am. More are interested in the American Civil war period so you may really want to hit that area if you do decide to begin reading some history. Lincoln was indeed a fascinating character.

I remember when you gave "Anna Karenina" a try. Your description reminds me of a try. Your description of it reminds me of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. Tones of long digressions on all sorts of seemingly unrelated subjects, a lot of which was really non - fiction. I did like it but I am a bit crazy :)

I am totally with you on not reading books on certain subjects. As I get older I do find that certain things of a similar nature that you describe bother me too. I am getting squeamish over some seemingly mild situations!