This is unsolicited advice for Ph.D. and M.A. students. Others can read at their own risk.
Also note that this advice is fight-picking advice. My senior colleagues–especially the self-described curmudgeon who thinks that all historical scholarship has gone downhill since 1968–will most certainly disagree with what I have to say here. We will agree to disagree, though, since we quite like each other!
I am saying that you should think twice before you read older books. NOT that you should dismiss them out of hand. Sometimes on the second pass, you will decide the book is worth reading.
Academic presses churn out scholarly books at a breakneck pace. Your job is to gain a familiarity with the directions current scholarship is moving. You can’t do this if you mainly read older books. While we laud historiography–knowing the history of our own fields of study–we can often glean the history of our history from recent books. We don’t need to re-invent every single wheel.
Here are the really good reasons to read books that were published more than 25 years ago:
- People still regularly read it, assign it, and argue with it. I can think of countless examples of books that are so important to their respective fields that people still regularly assign them. I habitually assign Cohen’s Making a New Deal (1990) and Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization (1995). I imagine that I may stop someday, but why mess with what works so well? Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1985), William Cronon’s Changes in the Land (1983), Knight’s The Mexican Revolution (1990), E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), for example, all continue to spark debate and inspire others, even if scholars have complicated (and sometimes disproven) their interpretations. How do you decide if a book is in this category? Ask your advisers. [I have read all of these books and would recommend that you read them too!] Check in google scholar to see how many times it’s been cited by other scholars [Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand (1977) has been cited by 10, 204 other works.] Check to see whether it’s still in print, and if so, how many printings it’s gone through. [Chandler’s The Visible Hand had gone through 16 printings as of 2002.] Check to see whether there are revised editions. A press generally won’t issue a revised edition of a work unless the original work remains influential.
- There’s literally nothing else. When you are doing research, you will sometimes identify a very specific and specialized topic that has not been covered extensively by historians more recently. If you need background (or a review of what is in an archival collection you won’t be able to visit otherwise) that is only available in an older book, by all means, read that book. For example, there has been surprisingly little written about the New Deal in Puerto Rico. For research I did for my book, some material was only covered in Thomas Mathew’s Puerto Rican Politics in the New Deal (1960). Most of what you read for comps fields will not fall into this category. Dissertations may be a different story. But you will still need to know what the most recent interventions have been in your field.
- A theoretical book gives you new insights into your own ideas. Really important books that changed how everyone thinks about everything sometimes merit careful re-reading . Some classics really do continue to pay off (or we delude ourselves into thinking they do). People read Polanyi, Gramsci, Raymond Williams, Foucault, and etc., for this reason. Sometimes this is justified.
Not-so-good reasons to read older books:
- It was the only book in the library on the topic. Our university library catalog is not to be counted out for building bibliographies.
- Historians at one time in the past got extremely agitated about the argument offered in the book. For decades people got exercised by William Appleman Williams’ The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Most of us have moved on. Though it was important and influential, I no longer think that it’s required on a U.S. foreign policy reading list. You can understand the contours of the debate from more recent works.
- You couldn’t figure out which of the many books on the topic to pick. Don’t just roll the dice. In this case, ask for advice. Check to see how frequently each book has been cited. Check reviews to see whether reviewers think one or another recent book is most important.