The Problem with Big Books; Or, Alan Taylor’s Biggest Sin

[Headlines are supposed to draw readers, right?]

TaylorOne of the first things I did after finishing my dissertation a couple of months back (other than sleeping for an entire week, of course), was reading Alan Taylor’s latest tome, An Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1776-1832 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), which recently won the Pulitzer Prize. (One could argue that Taylor’s biggest sin, other than the one I’m about to discuss, is hogging all the major book awards.) As one would expect given Taylor’s track record, I was floored by the book’s exhaustive research and lyrical prose. I made a mental note that this would be a great book to assign to students. Now that I’m prepping for this fall, when I’ll be teaching a Jeffersonian America course, I gave the idea more serious consideration. However, I soon realized the biggest problem, which more seasoned teachers probably already know.

The book is just too big.

Though the font is rather large, there are still nearly 450 pages of text, pre-endnotes. I’m pretty sure if I assigned it to a group of undergrads, even in a 300-level class, it would invoke a mutiny. Or it would at least drastically decrease the number of other books I assign in the semester, since I try to keep the total page count to a respectful amount. And this is all a shame, since I think students would benefit significantly from reading this book, since it so ably captures the centrality of slavery to the early republic and offers a compelling reading of one of America’s least-understood events (the War of 1812). As it is, I’ll probably assign chapter 8, which gives a fantastic account of slaves escaping plantations to join the British forces.

And this seems to be a problem with a lot of my favorite books: recent examples of other 400+ page books that I wish could be assigned include John Burt’s Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), and, to go back a decade, Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003) and David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).[1] All personal favorites, all books I think history majors should read, yet all perhaps too long for an undergraduate course. This is especially a problem in today’s Age of Twitter (#ADD), where students live 140 characters at a time.

Of course, it should not be expected that every book be designed for the classroom; some arguments need hundreds of pages in order to provide proper exposure. And to package a book in a concise, less-than-200-pages frame is a completely different type of beast, and often a different type of project: we have plenty of excellent books that are especially designed for short readings, like David Waldstreicher’s Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (Hill and Wang, 2009), Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2001), and Spencer Fluhman’s Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (UNC Press, 2012). I am especially excited to try out Rachel Hope Cleve’s Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (Oxford UP, 2014) in the classroom soon.[2] We benefit from all these books of different lengths.

So, the easy thing is just to go with some of the numerous excellent books that are designed especially for the classroom. Yet I’m still torn. On the one hand, I love the idea of forcing students to grapple with extended arguments, which challenges their limited attention span and makes them focus on rigorous and exhaustive thought. It is also important to introduce history students to the masters of the craft, and those established scholars usually only write behemoths. But on the other hand, I hate to overwhelm students with more reading than they can handle, and spending too much time (and reading capital) on a single text limits the opportunity to expose them to more perspectives and arguments in the form of companion readings. And there is something to provocative-yet-efficient texts that really cultivate good class discussion.

So I’m mostly writing this post to get advice: have you found a way to incorporate these larger books into the classroom? Do you ever just bite the bullet and assign a massive tome? Or do you assign excerpts, chapters that you feel do a good job of standing in for the broader work? Or do you just avoid them like the plague?


[1] It seems Harvard University Press is particularly guilty of producing large books that are so good I wish I could assign to undergrads. Shame on them. Also, while not explicitly the focus of this post, it should be noted that there are important gendered issues at play with these larger books, as outlined in an AHA magazing article a couple years ago.

[2] I acknowledge that there are many other factors that go into different lengths of books, including the fact that younger scholars write shorter texts in order to fit into their tenure clocks, and established faculty can take their time to produce long, exhaustive texts that are decades in the making. And then you have bullies like Alan Taylor who produce the latter while on the timetable of the former. The nerve of that guy.

27 responses

  1. I assign long books, but I divide them up (e.g., Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams), but I get around the length problem by assigning students to lead the discussion on different chapters. I suspect that students don’t always read the entire book, but they read the intro. and the chapters they are responsible for, and they also have to at least skim the other chapters to be prepared to answer questions from their peers.

    • That’s a great idea, and one I hadn’t thought about. I’ve of course experienced dividing books in grad seminars, but dividing chapters in an undergrad course sounds like something I’ll have to try.

      • I started a couple of years ago with books and articles, and it has worked better than I ever expected. It helps put the onus on students but still allows me to interject useful comments and analysis. I still lecture occasionally, but students seem to prefer the discussion format.

  2. Not a solution to your problem, but one thing publishers might consider is releasing condensed/abridged versions for classroom use (although maybe this makes historians cringe). Oxford UP did this with Michael Klarman’s (massive) From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, releasing an abridged version focused around Brown v. Board:

  3. In my experience, most students do not want to read long books, or even pieces of long books. This is frustrating, and a great shame, but what can you do? I have a senior colleague who has just retired from classroom teaching who had a rule that nothing he assigned should be longer than 150 pages per week. He taught in a major law school, by the way, and you’d think that law students would be OK with reading a great deal, especially if it’s not a collection of dry cases or dry statutes, but no.

    So I do my best to assign reading according to that rule, and usually it works well. I do bring the big books to my students’ attention — usually by dragging my copy into the classroom, and talking about it a bit, while waving it over my head to get their attention. Some dutifully make note of the given title, and actually tell me later that they found a copy and read it, but those students are exceptions, not the rule.

    • I’ve heard, and plan to follow, the 150 pages per week rule as well–I wonder where that started. It would be hard, then, to dedicate an entire month to a large book.

  4. Pingback: “The Problem with Big Books; Or, Alan Taylor’s Biggest Sin” | Reckless Historians

  5. All of the authors you mention are exceptionally good at writing big books, and in the case of Alan Taylor, even finding an impressively broad audience for them. So my comments are not about these great books, but the large number of academic books that are probably too long even for a narrower professional audience. My bookshelf is filled with 600+ page books, many of which have only had 50-100 of their pages exposed to daylight. Yours probably are, too. We all make strategic decisions about how much time we can devote to a certain book when there are so many other important ones still to be read, and the typical undergraduate–even the most hard working one–also has to make strategic decisions about how many hours to devote to that History class and how many hours to devote to the Chemistry class. Some books need to be 600 pages long. But I also have more than a few on my shelves–even books in my sub-specialties–that are longer than they need to be to serve scholars in that subspecialty. The tendency of some scholars to want to include every single thing they found in the archives in the book, even if they means producing a book that is repetitive and not strongly anchored to a central argument is a problem in the discipline. I would be loathe to dictate appropriate book length. But the profession might do more to celebrate the virtues of brevity and conciseness, when warranted.

    • Absolutely agree that there are a lot of books that should be a lot shorter than they are. I’ve grown to love the “midling-sized” books, those that hover around 300 pages. Long enough to get into a deep issue, but not so long that they are too cumbersome.

  6. Nice topic. Does part of this dilemma stem from a desire by professors to “pay homage” to leading historians by assigning their work – even if the author doesn’t know the work is being assigned? e.g., Alan Taylor has won the Pulitzer twice, so I have to include him? Here’s another question: I am a big fan of Lawrence Henry Gipson’s 14 volume history of the colonies, yet I presume few readers will go through the whole series. Was it worth his time to write it if they lie unopened on a shelf?

    • I’m not sure it is so much an issue of “paying homage” as it is acknowledging some of the best work in the field, and introducing students to some of the best historians. Taylor has won two Pulitzers for a reason, after all.

      I honestly have not attempted Gipson’s series. I have hard enough time with trilogies!

    • Even though readers in the first half of the century (when Gipson began the project) were much more likely to read multi-volume “Histories of _______,” I’d suspect Gipson did not write it expecting readers to read all 15 volumes.

  7. A lot depends on your teaching philosophy, I think. I try and introduce students to a broad array of arguments – that’s always going to have more breadth than depth, and means the chances to get into any individual book are tricky.

    With Taylor, I’d also hypothesize it depends on the courses you are teaching. A class on the development of slavery? Set the whole thing. A class on the early republic? A chapter or two is probably about right.

    The other question is what you can set as oppositional reading. With something like, say, Creation of the American Republic, it’s easy to find one or two books to set up in juxtaposition. For something like The Civil War of 1812, there is much more to get to grips with, and so setting one big book might distort everything else in the class.

  8. Interesting post, Ben. Another consideration is whether we want assigned reading to resemble the kind of writing that we hope our students will eventually produce. Articles and stand-alone book chapters offer opportunities to talk about how to effectively present an academic argument in a relatively short space. They can model, for instance, how to choose appropriately narrow topics, how to articulate a thesis and its significance, or how to use evidence. One risk of assigning a Big Book, I think, is that it can be hard for students to see similarities between what they’re reading and what they’re writing.

  9. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Big books are a blessing and curse. When they are written are written by Alan Taylor they are blessing because they are extraordinarily well written and meticulously researched. On the hand, a big book in less capable hands can even be long hard slog for graduate students and faculty. Benjamin Park at the Junto complains that even an Alan Taylor can be too long for undergraduates. Is he right?

  10. This is one case where ebooks can be useful, if you’re fortunate enough to teach at school with good subscription services. For example, I would never assign all of Howe’s _What Hath God Wrought_, but through the library my students were able to download PDFs of individual chapter I assigned.

    Another option of course is simply to have them buy the book but not assign the whole thing. My students really enjoyed reading select chapters on particular states in Maier’s _Ratification_.

  11. Evidently I get away with murder. In the first half of the US survey, I assign books like Robert Cole’s World, William Cooper’s Town (for you Taylor fans), The Unredeemed Captive, and Scraping By. Students actually seem to do the reading, or at least enough of it to write on the books in a reasonably convincing fashion. It helps that I have TAs who devote much of the time in weekly discussion sections to exploring the texts with students. It also helpsthat I teach in a relatively privileged setting. But no doubt I’m the last of the dinosaurs when it comes to not giving in on the length issue.

  12. I’ve found that if I want to assign a long book, doing so at the outset of the semester helps a great deal. I once managed to get an upper-level undergraduate class on the history of the American West to read Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire, which is both long and reasonably complex. Perhaps you can get away with one longish text if you don’t then get carried away…

  13. Pingback: A Tale of the Classroom: Introducing Richard Dunn’s Book to Undergraduates « The Junto

  14. Pingback: Wednesday Link Roundup #55: Big Books, Digital Books, & History - Elizabeth M. Covart | Elizabeth M. Covart


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