I happened to pick up an old favorite off the bookshelf recently — E.H. Carr’s classic What Is History?, published in 1961. It’s a wonderful little book about the method of history; if you majored in history in college, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of it. It’s not quite Robin Collingwood, but it’s pretty darned close.
Anyway, I ran across this passage, which I’d dog-eared years ago. It had always resonated with me, but, having now presented my unfinished wanderings to the general public over these past five months, it means more to me now than ever.
Laymen — that is to say, non-academic friends or friends from other academic disciplines — sometimes ask me how the historian goes to work when he writes history. The commonest assumption appears to be that the historian divides his work into two sharply distinguishable phases or periods. First, he spends a long preliminary period reading his sources and filling his notebooks with facts: then, when this is over, he puts away his sources, takes out his notebooks, and writes his book from beginning to end.
This is to me an unconvincing and unplausible picture. For myself, as soon as I have got going on a few of what I take to be the capital sources, the itch becomes too strong and I begin to write — not necessarily at the beginning, but somewhere, anywhere. Thereafter, reading and writing go on simultaneously. The writing is added to, subtracted from, re-shaped, cancelled, as I go on reading. The reading is guided and directed and made fruitful by the writing: the more I write, the more I know what I am looking for, the better I understand the significance and relevance of what I find. [...]
I am convinced that, for any historian worth the name, the two processes of what economists call “input” and “output” go on simultaneously and are, in practice, parts of a single process. If you try to separate them, or to give one priority over the other, you fall into one of two heresies. Either you write scissors-and-paste history without meaning or significance; or you write propaganda or historical fiction, and merely use facts of the past to embroider a kind of writing which has nothing to do with history.
Before I started writing almost daily here at OrthodoxHistory.org, I kept copious notes of my research findings. I drafted and re-drafted dozens of articles — some long, some short, but none for immediate publication. I wrote, with myself as my only audience, because I could not resist the urge to write. And as Carr said, the act of writing fueled the act of researching, and led me to grapple with the evidence and better understand it in the process.
Now that I write for public consumption, that process has only intensified. I still keep private notes (hundreds of pages’ worth, by now), but I also put a lot of my unfinished work here at OH.org. I have been pleasantly surprised to find so many people who are also interested in American Orthodox history, and many of you have turned the tables, writing to me and, in the process, teaching me and forcing me to look at my own research in a fresh light. The whole experience has been extremely gratifying.
So, in this season of Thanksgiving here in the United States, I would like to thank each of you who read what we write here at OrthodoxHistory.org, be it on the website itself, on Facebook, on Google Reader, or via some other means. I am humbled that you would take the time to read our work, and I am very happy to know that there are thousands of you out there who care about this subject. I know I speak for all of us here at SOCHA when I say: Thank you.