Burying Books versus Praising Them

When asked as a child to name my hobbies, my usual response was “books.” I wasn’t athletic or artistic; I couldn’t play a musical instrument or entertain an audience on stage. My skill was reading, and I honed it daily: on the bus ride to and from school (two hours a day just to read! I didn’t appreciate that luxury then), in breaks between classes and during recess (which got me a reprimand for not being sufficiently social), while I ate dinner and before I fell asleep at night (I joined the Bad Decisions Book Club at a very young age and have maintained my membership ever since). I churned through books, making weekly trips to our local branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia to replenish my supply and spending any money that came my way on new acquisitions at Encore Books and Borders. My tastes were eclectic: I devoured series like the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, then moved on to Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High; I developed my interest in history through both fiction and non-fiction; I eventually acquired another hobby by reading about baseball (that hobby was watching baseball, not playing it—I still wasn’t at all athletic).

I didn’t only enjoy reading books, though—I loved to share them. My Aunt Marge, a librarian, invariably asked me what I was reading and prompted me to tell her what I liked about the books I had chosen, then recommended others that she thought I might appreciate. I thrilled at the opportunity to deliver book reports at school, erroneously convinced that my over-zealous summaries and analysis would persuade apathetic classmates to love these volumes as much as I did. I was constantly trying to spread the word, not about the Good Book, but about all good books.

It’s little surprise, then, that years later I gravitated toward a profession that revolves around books—reading them, discussing them, writing them. I came to the study of Chinese history through reading books about the country, finding myself enthralled and intrigued by the stories told in volumes by writers like Jonathan Spence and Peter Hessler. I wanted to read more and discuss what I’d read with other people who were as interested in the topic as I was. So I went to graduate school.

And then … I went to graduate school.

Grad school, especially the first few years of a humanities Ph.D. program, is all about books. In the United States, at least, students begin with “coursework,” which lasts 2-3 years and involves a number of seminars (3-4 per term) requiring participants to read one or multiple books per week and show up prepared to discuss them for three hours. Depending on the professor, you might be expected to submit written responses to the books, or prepare questions in advance if it’s your week to lead the seminar. Sometimes, there are snacks. In theory, grad seminars are incredibly dorky book club meetings (with grades).

I attended three graduate programs (two masters [one unfinished] and a doctorate) at three different institutions, spending nearly six academic years of my life in seminars. What I quickly realized—though in some ways I only see it with true clarity now, nearly a decade after leaving my last seminar meeting—is that most seminars aren’t about nerding out over books and discussing all the reasons they’re great. It is, in fact, deeply uncool to show up prepared to gush over the week’s reading.

The focus in seminars is to engage in critical analysis of the books—and grad students put the emphasis on “critical.” Many students approach seminars as an opportunity to demonstrate their academic prowess by systematically eviscerating every book on the reading list. As Oxford University Press editor Susan Ferber writes in a recent essay for the American Historical Association’s Perspectives magazine,

There was a lot of posturing and trying on of academic jargon to convey ideas in a way that we thought would impress our professors and each other. By the end of each class session, it almost always felt as though there was no value in those books: that the authors had structured them badly, their research questions were inadequate, their archival source base was too thin, the analysis had failed to take into account all the strands it should, and overall they were bad reads.

Some professors would counter the students’ arguments, or at least play devil’s advocate as a way of pushing us to articulate our critiques more convincingly. I had professors who would re-orient a discussion when it got too negative, or who would point out that they had assigned the book for a reason and we should consider what it could teach us. But more often than not, my memories of grad seminars are of me arriving in the classroom excited about the week’s reading and then, three hours later, going home convinced that I hadn’t actually understood the book at all. I thought the book was really good, I would mourn, but I guess I just didn’t see all the problems with it.

This, obviously, is one way to develop a raging case of imposter syndrome, which in turn led me to adopt the practices I saw modeled around me. Like everyone else, I analyzed critically. I absorbed the lesson that any modest praise of course readings needed to be heavily couched in reservations expressed about its approach, methodology, evidence, and/or conclusions. I learned to look for problems as I read, to focus my comments on weaknesses rather than strengths.

Reading Ferber’s explanation of how dissatisfaction with this approach led her to leave grad school and embark on a career in publishing has helped me think through some of the reasons that I now rarely remember grad seminars with fondness. I wanted to read engaging and inspiring works and talk about what made them great with other people who shared my interests. Instead, I often felt that my problem was I liked the books too much, making me a Bad Academic.

Admittedly, there are good books and bad ones, strong books and weak ones. Occasionally a professor admitted that yes, they had assigned a particular work because they thought it had problems and would serve as a useful case study for us to discuss. Some of what we read was badly in need of critical analysis, and it would have benefited the author to get more of that before the book went to press. But my classmates and I tore apart our course readings with a focus and determination that most of these works didn’t deserve (and, I should add, with a frankness that we would have never expressed to the author’s face, or in a public book review). With time and distance from the classroom, I can see that those years inculcated a negativity in my approach to reading that wasn’t easy to shake. I wasn’t enjoying books; I was looking for ways to undermine them.

Like Susan Ferber, through this experience I gained a better understanding of what I enjoy and what I want to spend my time on. I love to edit and help other people strengthen their work; even more, I love to share the books that excite me, which I can do through book reviews and social media posts. I never pass up the opportunity to celebrate a good book and encourage other people to read it. And fortunately, I now have somewhat more success in accomplishing that than I did back when I was delivering over-enthusiastic book reports in front of my grade-school classmates. The medium and audience might have changed, but my inability to keep quiet about a good book will never go away.

Feature photo: A selection of books in the China pile on my desk that I’m eager to read and/or share with others. I’ll have the opportunity to talk about one volume very soon: on Friday, February 12 at 7:00pm Eastern Time, I will be in dialogue with Silvia M. Lindtner about her new book, Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation (Princeton University Press, 2020). This is an online event hosted by Ann Arbor’s Literati Bookstore and open to all—no preregistration needed. Get all the details on how to join us at Literati’s website.

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