U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Promise of Winter Break

Now is the time of year most people look forward to: the holiday season. For my colleagues in academia especially, now is a good time for a bit of a rest and also a chance to prepare for the new year. This isn’t the case for everyone, as some of my friends are currently preparing for comprehensive exams in January. For others, getting together final touches on syllabi is an important part of December. For that matter, dissertation writing is also going on. After all, what better time to get that chapter done than right now?

I’m not yet at the point of comps…although I will be after next semester (what is that I hear? A clock ticking?). I am trying to edit and revise at least one research paper and turn it into a potential article. But beyond that, now’s as good a time as any to get some serious reading done. Thinking back on Tim Lacy’s open thread, there I raised the idea of reading both history and fiction over the break. It has become almost a yearly tradition for me to prepare a reading list for the holiday break. Yet, I know that now is as good a time as any to read fiction as well as history.

It’s easy to become enveloped by history reading in graduate school. Between classes, research, more research, and just wanting to stay up with trends in your field of study, reading scholarly monographs is a constant. Allowing your mind to consume other forms of reading, however, is crucial. Most of my friends in academia (and quite a few outside of it for that matter) mention trying to read the occasional novel, if only to give their mind a break from other intellectual pursuits. It’s imperative to remember, however, that reading a novel is also a gateway to an equally stimulating intellectual pursuit, one that most academics need to take advantage of at any cost.

So sure, I’m going to finally get around to reading Paul Murphy’s The Rebuke of History. But next to it will be Chimamanda Adiche’s Americanah, about the adventures of young West Africans in the United States. Granted, the juxtaposition of books about Southern Agrarians and modern cosmopolitan Africans is, for lack of a better term, intriguing, but I offer it here as a reminder that now is as good a time as any to stretch and gently exercise the mind. I offer that I have my own biases here, as my academic career began with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing. I too often lament the fact that I haven’t a word of fiction in years, and have barely read more than that in terms of short stories and novels over the same time span.

Sure, I’m more than happy I finally have a chance to read Houston Baker’s Betrayal, about Black intellectuals after the Civil Rights era. But I’ll be just as happy to find some science fiction and devour that too. I often see my love of science fiction and sports as my twin guilty pleasures. Yet, I suppose such things are important for having balance in one’s life—even if that balance includes rooting for such teams as the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons in 2013. I and my friends often engage in friendly banter about how little “balance” we have in our lives during the semester. But I’m all too aware that I try too hard to set myself apart from others, consumed with reading and writing.

The winter break is a chance to do many things. As a historian in training (and really, when does such training ever end? Never, which is a good thing.) I find myself with a single-track mind of doing all I can to become a better historian. But I also need to remind myself that reading a good novel isn’t a bad thing. Watching a sporting event with friends isn’t the worst use of my time. And, most important of all, a recharge with family back home, away from other distractions, is an excellent use of the holiday season.

Balance is the name of the game. And before I resume reading Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams, before I pre-order the new David Chappell book on Black Americans after 1968 (Waking from the Dream), it is sufficient to sit back on my couch and simply allow my mind to wander. If only for a moment or two.

6 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. I’m going to spend winter break trying to recover from fall semester. It was brutal. Maybe something to do with writing the first chapter of my dissertation? Nothing in my experience or in my training prepared me for that ordeal as a writer. It was existential loneliness and despair of a different order. I am still not quite myself. And the worst thing is knowing that I have to turn around and do it again.

    Ho, ho, ho.

  2. Robert–Great piece. At the end of the semester, I often read fiction. At the end of one semester, I read The Family Corleone, which is a prequel to The Godfather. At other times, I read the old Doc Savage pulps or some of Jack Higgins’ better novels.

    • Heh good choices. I really need to get back to fiction, and the choices you made sound like some great ones.

  3. Oh, heck, I’m fine. Just trying to recalibrate my writing brain to tackle a different sort of problem. Have to develop a new process, a different oscillation between research and writing, drafting and revising, work and rest, and figure out how to manage a degree of complexity/multiplicity that I haven’t had to think about before in shorter, self-contained projects.

    This is one reason I ended up reading Herodotus — it was both instructive and encouraging to see how he pulled his sources into something like narrative coherence. You can see him straining with his story, backtracking here, shifting locales there, picking up backstory somewhere else and carrying it forward. I found it helpful.

    However, I don’t know yet what kind of reading or mental meandering will prove useful over the long haul in terms of helping me figure out how to pull all these sources and strands of thought into a coherent whole. Just have to learn as I go. I have been doing that all my life, so I expect I’ll be fine. But it is definitely a different set of intellectual / authorial problems than I’ve ever had to deal with before. I’m game; just waiting in my corner between rounds.

    • I completely understand. Godspeed to you! I find myself reading monographs asking some of these same questions. “Did the writer put together a narrative? If so, how did he/she do it?”

Comments are closed.