Careful Writing, Careful Reading

One of the minor irritations of life is to be misunderstood. Cue downcast eyes and heavy sighs. Of course, there are times when we have no one to blame but ourselves. I am often mortified when I realise I have expressed myself ambiguously or made an allusion few will understand. Sloppy writing suggests sloppy thinking, and the world is full of it. Why should anyone contribute more? At other times, I feel rather more combative. If people won’t take the trouble to read the whole of a post before commenting, or if they miss my carefully-nuanced argument, should I explain myself more fully? Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t. The (lapsed) historian in me wants precise writing; the monastic in me wants precise reading, but it seems never the twain shall meet.

This month we have lost three fine historians: John Bossy, Lisa Jardine and David Cesarani. All three enriched life with their historical writing, which was carefully researched, closely argued and, in most cases, beautifully and perceptively written. How easy it is to miss all that by skimming over their pages or taking chunks out of context! We all have a tendency to speed-read, but there is a case to be made for giving time to our reading. Scripture and poetry do not reveal their riches all at once; nor does history. Unless we are geniuses, slow reading is essential to historical understanding. It means allowing time for the comfortable chatter of the footnote, pausing while we digest a new idea or make a new connection. They are part and parcel of thinking historically — grace-notes in the business of living.