Over the Christmas Holidays, one of the assessments I had to complete was a review of three monographs. Each monograph had to be on a similar subject, and all had to be published after 2005. For anyone who isn’t aware (I wasn’t) a monograph is a detailed study/research, written by an individual – essentially a book on a specific topic written by one person alone. Whilst this assessment may seem relatively easy, I WAS STUMPED. In early November when I first started thinking about my assignments, I realised almost immediately that I hadn’t read 3 entire monographs, published after 2005. Imagine that!! I had a DEGREE and I literally couldn’t think of three whole books to review.
Even more surprisingly, neither could my peers. Almost everyone I complained to said they were in the same boat, even one of my tutors confessed her students had similar issues. It’s not that I am bad at reading, I read SO much for my degree it is staggering, but what I’ve realised is that I just don’t read whole books. Before this term I had no reason to read an entire book, I mean I definitely could, but I didn’t really need to. Besides, individual chapters, essays and articles are (in my opinion) so much more useful. Even Introductions and Conclusions can give me the information I need without me scouring through the entire book. Monographs are amazing, and informative and the work that goes into them is so impressive but I will ALWAYS favour a good article.
I read an essay by Zadie Smith recently entitled The Rise of the Essay and within that she quotes something very interesting that Virginia Woolf said. Woolf wrote that unlike in a book, “There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay” because there is a limit on how much you can write. Both Woolf and Smith were talking about a slightly different forms of literature, but I believe it is true of academic writing as well. Monographs are long, and highly detailed and painstakingly researched and that is a good thing, but when you are a student trying to find just the right quote, or piece of information, they are hard to get through. An article, or a chapter within an edited volume are much more appealing because everything you need is right there within 20-30 pages of indepth research. More importantly articles, because they have a much stricter word limit, pack in the most important aspects of their research in a concise, coherent way. All the key information, the most relevant sources and the best reading material can be found SO MUCH EASIER within an article or chapter compared to an entire book.
I’ve found that this urgency to present a theory, to tell a story, was much more impactful on me and my research than any book was. The argument was precise, the ideas even more powerful. It has made me question my own career path slightly; I know I want to write history, of that I am absolutely certain, but I’m not sure if I want to write a monograph. I want most of all to impact people with my writing, the way others have impacted me. So far a monograph hasn’t done that, so my theory is my own monograph won’t either. But maybe that’s not the way to look at it.
This assessment forced me to read three new monographs front to back. They were books I was already reading for another essay, but rather than skip through parts, or go straight to the most relevant sections, I read (most of) them all the way through. They were surprisingly good, and not difficult to get through. The most valuable part of this experience however, was that by reading three books on the same topic, and then reviewing them against each other; I learnt a lot about writing styles, the importance of relevance and how best to approach theories on gender and sexuality. The content of the books themselves weren’t groundbreaking for me, but I think they did improve my own approaches to writing history.
My preference for articles remains intact, but I see the value in monographs more since completing that assignment. As I begin to research for my dissertation, I am hopeful that I will find influence in all types of historical writing. I am more committed now to reading monographs throughout and appreciating the work that has gone into them. I haven’t found one that inspires me yet, but I am going to keep looking. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll publish my own monograph (or article who cares) that’ll inspire the history students of the future. I can hope for that anyway!!