Set Ups and Summaries

Part of the research process I’m developing involves reading and thinking through the first and last chapter of a book, and first and last few paragraphs of a chapter, to get an expectation of what’s to come (combined with some other stuff I call this pre-reading). I’m currently pondering how much you can get out of this, and specifically if it’s fair to reject a work because it failed pre-reading.

Pre-reading is in part derived from advice in How to Read a Book to find a books “Unity”, the idea being that you’ll better incorporate information into your understanding if you know how it connects to the author’s larger point. I objected to HtRaB’s advice on this topic in my review, because it seemed to be trying to enforce an orderliness that reality does not support. Looking for a unified narrative encourages the author to throw out anything that doesn’t fit their narrative, and the reader to ignore it even when it’s included. Even in situations where there is a fairly clear narrative you might not know it yet, and it’s important to be able to share raw data without prematurely deciding what it means.

Then I pre-read chapter 12 of Children in Colonial America (an anthology: chapters have a common theme but each is meant to stand alone), and my immediate reaction was “nothing with this ending is going to be any good.”  The chapter is discussing specific individuals down to the last paragraph, with no attempt to summarize what’s come before. The start is better but not by much- the last sentence of the first paragraph should clearly be the first, and the contextualization the rest of the paragraph provides should have come after, not before, when I know why I care what percentage of 1770s Boston’s population was made up of children.

The paragraphs in question:

Boston, the American Revolution’s “cradle of liberty,” was a town full of children. As in British North America as a whole, over half the population was under the age of adulthood. Children participated in political actions as early as Boston’s first public protest against the Stamp Act, on August 14, 1765: an organizer described “two or three hundred little boys with a Flagg marching in a Procession on which was King, Pitt & Liberty for ever.”1 The first Bostonian to die in political violence was a young boy. Apprentices both brought on and suffered in the Massacre of 1770, and pushed their way into the Tea Party of 1773. How did those children interpret the political conflict, and what motivated many of them to participate?

Children in Colonial America (Children and Youth in America) (p. 204). NYU Press. Kindle Edition.


When war finally came, the little boys who marched against the Stamp Act in 1765 were of prime age to be soldiers. Some younger boys took war as a chance to assume adult freedoms. On April 19, thirteen-year-old Benjamin Russell and several friends left their Writing School and followed the redcoat reinforcements out of town, attaching themselves to the provincial camp by the end of the day. Teenagers enlisted with and without their parents’ consent. Thirteen-year-old Daniel Granger of Andover was so small that when he was singled out for praise, his captain “sat me down on his Knees.”37 These boys took on men’s roles in the fight for liberty, leaving the symbolic battles of childhood behind.

Children in Colonial America (Children and Youth in America) (pp. 213-214). NYU Press. Kindle Edition.

Those opening and closing paragraphs clearly fail at the goals of orienting and summarizing the work. But a lot of my posts are kind of crap at that too. I’m writing about ideas in their preliminary stages in a way that forces a lot of the work onto the reader. I’m doing it right now, although I have spiffed up the opening and closing to avoid embarrassment. Maybe this author is doing that.  It’s not like having a good introduction and summary are a guarantee of quality. Chapter 11 of the same book does a great job telling you what it’s going to tell you and what it’s told you, but I am pretty dissatisfied with it in ways I am even less able to articulate.

Back on the first hand, maybe factual chapters in professionally edited books should be help to a different standard than blog posts describing bursts of an in-progress project. Maybe my scattered opening and closing paragraphs should cause you to downgrade your assessment of these post (although if you could keep in mind what I’m capable of when I’m prioritizing idea transmission, that would be cool).

I don’t think books/chapters/blog posts should be held to a single unifying narrative. But facts and models are a lot more useful connected to other facts and models than they are in isolation. The author making no attempt to do so makes my job harder- perhaps impossibly so given how little I know about the chapter’s topic.

Yeah, that feels quite fair-  this chapter might be very useful to people more familiar with the field, but that doesn’t mean it’s very helpful to me, a non-expert trying to bootstrap her way up.

A thing I would normally praise Children chapter 12 for, and did praise other chapters of the same book for, is providing a lot of concrete examples to shore up general assertions (e.g. “A large number of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was children” was followed by references to demographic counts from a large number of ships). But the information doesn’t feel quite right. For example, when describing the youth of men who enlisted in the American army, the chapter uses an anecdote about a 13 year old sitting on his commander’s knee. That doesn’t address the paragraph’s stated concern of “how did the Revolutionary War affect teenage boys’ options?” and it’s also a really terrible way of assessing the prevalence of 13 year olds enlisting. That’s one of those questions best answered by counting. And neither really belongs in the final paragraph of a chapter, which chapter 3 knew and chapter 12 didn’t.

Ah, this is a thing: tallies of thousands of people across dozens of ships is not really comparable to an anecdote about one 13 year old. The anecdote just isn’t useful data, except maybe as a pointer to where to find more data. Anecdotes have their place, but the bare minimum to make a compilation of anecdotes useful is knowing how they were generated. Are they representative? Slanted towards some group or ideology?

I’ll look like a real ass here if I don’t have a summary, but I’m still not sure what I’ve learned. I still think How to Read a Book is wrong to insist every book have a clearly defined Unity. I think Children in Colonial America Chapter 12’s opening and especially closing paragraphs signal failure on some level, although I am not absolutely certain what signal I’m picking up on. I’ve spent longer writing this and skimming the chapter than it would have taken to read it deeply, but that’s okay because it was a better use of my time.


2 thoughts on “Set Ups and Summaries”

Comments are closed.