Well, first and foremost, lots and lots and lots of comps books.
“Comps” is short for comprehensive exams, or the oral and written tests history (and other) PhD students take in order to move on to dissertation work. At William & Mary, to prepare for comps, we make four themed lists of about 80 books each, based on our areas of interest. For instance, I have an Early America list, a 19th century list, a “Family, Gender, and Sexuality in the Early Modern Atlantic World” list, and will probably make one about early modern knowledge/the Enlightenment. We work with a different faculty advisor on each list; they help us choose books and meet with us as we’re reading them to make sure we have a handle on what we’re reading. My cohort and I have about a year and a half before we take comps, and so we’re currently in the thick of reading through our first lists.
I know it sounds impressive to read 320 books and then be tested on them, and it is a feat, but I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about it. We’re not necessarily being tested on every detail of every book. We’re being tested on the arc of argument the books on a list are making about an era/topic. How does each book advance that argument? We’ll be asked. What kind of sources, archival or otherwise, are the books referencing? How are they “doing history,” and how do historians’ methods and arguments change over time? In short, I don’t need to memorize every name and date in every book, but I do need to memorize what the books on my lists are arguing, and how they work within larger bodies of scholarship.
Here’s what I’ve read so far on my “Family and Gender” list:
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750
Amanda Herbert, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain
Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in New World Slavery
Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence and the Archive
Simon Smith, Slavery, Family and Gentry Capitalism in the British Atlantic: The World of the Lascelles, 1648-1834
Claudio Saunt, Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family
Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy
Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World
Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
I’m also making time for fiction this summer, because I can’t not. Most recently:
Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir
I love everything Mr. Alexie writes (to the point of weirdness), and this was no different. It’s possibly the most unique memoir I’ve ever read, intertwining poetry with prose. Despite its existing richness, however, I wished at times that it was shorter, and that it was broadened to include more of Mr. Alexie’s life. I know, I know; that would be an autobiography. But maybe I want an autobiography. This is my blog, man, I get to be greedy here.
Ian McGuire, The North Water
This is a disturbing book. Extremely disturbing, and within the first few pages. Be warned. But also read it, because it’s also so gripping and powerfully written that I read it in one three-hour car ride. And it’s the kind of book everyone should read in the summer: a true adventure novel.