Only Collect

This should be a fledgling historian’s maxim & I wish someone had told me this earlier. When you start out studying history — when you begin as a graduate historian, you are nothing; you are not even the history books you’ve already read, because you’ve probably misunderstood or not appreciated some fundamental aspect of them. You are an infant: the first eighteen or twenty years of your life were spent stumbling, coming to terms with living, with the world and with yourself. By the time you get to my age (23) you’ve had maybe four or five years of actual consciousness, self-awareness and self-understanding. You are now about five years old. Then, and only then, the real work begins.

And the work is: Only Collect; that is to say, collect everything, indiscriminately. You’re five years old. Don’t presume too much to know what’s important and what isn’t. Photocopy journal articles, photograph archives; create bibliographies, buy books; make notes on every article or book you read, even if it’s just one line saying “Never read this again”; collect newspaper clippings and email them to yourself; collect quotes; save your ideas for future papers, future projects, future conferences, even if they seem wildly implausible now. Hoarding must become instinctual, it must be an uncontrollable, primal urge. And the higher, civilizing impulse that kicks in after the fact is organization, or librarianship. You must keep tabs on everything you collect, somehow; a system must be had, and the system must be idiot-proof. That is to say, you should be able to look back on it six months for now and not be completely stymied as to why you’ve organized things that way. (The present versions of ourselves are invariably the biggest idiots, and six months will make that clear).

What this all takes is patience — more patience, sometimes, than I am good at. I am impatient to know things, and impatient for things to make sense more quickly; and the discipline (ah, that apt term) just doesn’t work that way. A colleague of mine told me that he’s been Only Collecting for over ten years, and can now knock out a 3000 word paper in under two days, simply because all his material is already at hand; it exists in the stuff he’s picked up in his intellectual infancy and adolescence, which at the time he didn’t know how to use, and perhaps didn’t even know was important.

Here, there’s one more point I could make: time fine-tunes your collecting habits. You are a predator of sources. Over time, things will start to jump out at you. For a lionness in the savannah on the hunt, the merest movement in the grass is a stimulus to action, but she has learned to distinguish between the random twitches of the landscape and the presence of prey. In the library and the archive, the hunt is as much a matter of skill as of instinct. In short, until you’re an adult lion, jump at everything — even if it turns out just to be a falling leaf, or a totally bizarre interview between George Bernard Shaw and a Saudi Muslim mystic in Mombasa in 1936, which I discovered amidst some otherwise entirely unremarkable magazine articles on the nature of Islam in Southeast Asia.

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