I found the biography of some musician from a bookstore sale. Eight euros and only some 200 pages told me right away that the book would not be a deep analysis of this musician’s life and person. Still, I thought to give it a try – who knows?
A book is very bad. You would imagine that the motive to write this kind of book would be to uncover the thoughts and facts behind this person’s actions and life, from the point of view of this person himself. So to speak, it should make his life understandable. But to the contrary, I felt that the main purpose of this book was to express the author’s personal thoughts. At this moment, I feel that I know better the author’s ideas and points of view than those of the musician.
When I was thinking about this book and its annoying mediocrity, I drew a strong lesson on how to research history. The main lesson is that you should conduct your study in such a way that you do justice to your sources. You should not fall victim to anachronisms and you should leave your own ideologies or attitudes out of your analysis.
Naturally, my next thought was: have I remembered these principles? Have I fell victim to the same clumsy subjectivity as the author of this book? There is always this danger when you analyse interviews, open survey answers or dusty documents out of the archives. I don’t know if I have, though I hope not.
Another annoying thing in the book was its storytelling, which was based totally on secondary sources. Facts were not asked from the subject of the book himself (or if they were, answers were not given), but rather they were taken from some people who had been the musician’s friends or occasional acquaintances. And to finish, the author used big chunks of information from some old music magazine interviews. This again led me to think about some guidelines in the research of history – new findings and constructions usually arise out of original sources. This time I was quite relieved. I have collected my own empirical data and I am doing the analysis myself, naturally reflecting on the overall theoretical frame.
These ideas were quite current, because in spring I am supposed to teach the methods of researching history to early stage students. I have noticed that these elements of working have become so self-evident that you really do not think of them, it comes automatically. However when you are trying to make somebody else understand in practice what really means to do justice to your sources or always ground your study to original sources, it´s healthy to stop for a while and practice some self-reflection.
In the end, I realised that this book perhaps is not so bad. It made me rethink my own work, its strengths and challenges. I think that this is quite a good achievement, even though it most likely was not the author’s original purpose. As a conclusion: remember to read books, as even a bad one can provide some welcome ideas.