An advice to history enthusiasts: specialize!

I’d like to say that history has always been where I excel the most. But it was only five years ago when I started to really read books on history. Since then, I’ve read maybe almost a hundred books – I’m kind of a slow reader – and have definitely learned a lot, not only about the past, but also about myself (touche!), and about the art of learning history itself.

And in the case of learning history, the most important lesson I’ve realized through the years is to have focus areas – specializations. This might seem too serious or academic of an advice, especially for casual history buffs, but it’s something that applies to a lot of aspects of life, and ought to be emphasized even more in these times.

So many prefer to be generalists, to have broad knowledge of many subjects. The world is obsessed with multitasking and jack-of-all-trades approach to productivity and learning. I learned that the opposite is equally, if not better, worthy of pursuit: to choose a few subjects and focus on depth than breadth. In fact, I’d say that limiting oneself to fewer pursuits results in greater freedom: by zeroing in on a few areas of interest, and removing all the other options available, a person is much freer to engage in deeper levels of learning. It may surprise you how much more knowledge can be learned even within a more limited scope of history.

So, my main advice is this: choose a specialization or two. At first, one should read more general and broad overviews. Or pick any book in the bookstore that piques interest, and start form there. Ask these questions: which parts of this book did I like best? Which parts do I want to learn more about? Consult the bibliography and endnotes: what references were used for those specific chapters or topics? Look them up online, read the synopsis, maybe read some reviews too. Get and read them. From there, you can start narrowing down your focus on more specific topics within your area of interest.

As an example, I am currently focused on two subjects, of varying breadth: First World War, and History of Christianity. Within the study of First World War, there’s so much topics one can spend resources studying: the war’s origins, the individual conflicts, military conduct and logistics, aerial warfare (WW1 is the first major war to see extensive use of aircrafts, though still not as effective as in WW2), dissent and opposition, role of women, diplomatic history, Treaty of Versailles and the war’s aftermath, among others. Even as I’ve focused on a single major war, there’s still way too much that can possibly be learned, and it’s enough to keep me busy for a lifetime.

History of Christianity is very broad, as it spans roughly two millenia of history, but so far I’ve decided to zero in on two periods: the Middle Ages (until Reformation, but excluding it), and 19th-century Catholicism. Of course the Middle Ages itself is still too broad, as it spans about a thousand years, while the 19th century focus is more targeted. In either case, I’ve at least isolated my interest into more coherent periods, instead of jumping around across the vast sweep of history.

So, I suggest one should read a few general history books, as well as books on varying periods and themes, for a few months or a year, depending on how fast or slow one reads. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a slow reader, though I still manage to read at a minimum 15 books a year. I don’t dwell too much on these figures, as they can be too distracting, and in any case, I’m bound to be really slow when books I read average 500 pages of dense nonfiction each!

And a lot of readers may indeed struggle going through dry history books. People will, of course, gravitate towards more entertaining and well-paced nonfiction. This is a normal tendency when reading for leisure, as one will want to find enjoyment in their free time, instead of being bogged down by even more mind stress than their work and personal life already give. This can be an issue in having a specialized learning, as the deeper one goes into a specific study area, the more complicated the books tend to be.

So, should you still specialize, even if the books will get drier and more boring as you dive deeper? I would say yes. In fact, it’s likely to make such dry reading more bearable, at the very least, if one has a limited area to focus on. It’s because as you read more books on a specific subject, you’ll see more of the same information (people, places, events, dates, etc.) being repeated over and over across many books. This seeming redundancy creates a better sense of familiarity, and helps further drill down these information into your mind.

In summary, I argue that people who are quite serious or highly interested in learning more about history should definitely consider having some specializations, specific subjects or periods or areas where they can devote more reading. Having such a specialization can provide better freedom than trying to learn surface-level history across a vast sweep of time period, and is ultimately provides deeper understanding of that specific subject.

Finally, I encourage history enthusiasts like me to provide some output too, as a way of deepening understanding of history. It can be a blog on reviews of books, podcasts, documentaries, whatever it is. It can be a blog on essays or personal research. Whatever it may be, having an outlet on history that one has learned helps in further comprehension and retention of those learnings. It may even spark interest on others who read such works, and may encourage even more people to read and learn history on their own.