Saturday, October 6, 2012

Are We Reading Too Fast? And a Chicago Antidote

University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon worries about some aspects of today:

I embrace and celebrate the digital age. I believe historians should use blogs and tweets, Wikipedia entries and YouTube videos, web pages and Facebook postings, and any number of other new media tools to share our knowledge with the wider world. But I also celebrate complicated arguments that need space to develop and patience to understand. And I love long stories that can only unfold across hundreds of pages or screens. What I most fear about this new age is its impatience and its distractedness. If history as we know it is to survive, it is these we most need to resist as we practice and defend long, slow, thoughtful reading.
Perhaps there will be room to maneuver a bit even within those confines. Cronon asserts that "the most effective blogs are typically one to three paragraphs in length," but the most popular post by far in the last month on this blog was a full six paragraphs long.

Meanwhile, anyone with the slightest interest in Chicago or Midwestern history can dig into Cronon's masterpiece, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. In another life, I had the privilege of reviewing it: "Cronon's research is so thorough, his explanations so deep, his sprinkling of evocative details so apt that the reader sees the 'obvious' with new eyes." Cronon's colleague Kenneth Jackson put it more straightforwardly: "No one has ever written a better book about a city."

William Cronon, "How Long Will People Read History Books?," Perspectives on History, vol. 50, no. 7 (October 2012), : accessed 5 October 2012.

William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).

Harold Henderson, "Past Prophecies," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 6 October 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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