[Headlines are supposed to draw readers, right?]
One 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). 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. 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?
 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.
 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.