A New Book Purchase and a Website/Podcast Recommendation
During a recent visit to the campus bookstore, I picked up a copy of D. Peter MacLeod’s Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution. I had seen MacLeod’s book recently profiled on John Fea’s website, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. (If you aren’t a regular visitor to John’s site, then I highly recommend checking it out along with the podcast.)
On Reading Northern Armageddon
I’m currently about a quarter of the way through Northern Armageddon and I’m enjoying a great deal. I was apprehensive about reading a battle history. Calling MacLeod’s book a battle history does a great disservice to it because it is certainly more than your typical battle history. Yes, I’m learning a great deal about Canada, Quebec, and the Seven Years’ War. However, one of the most enjoyable aspects of MacLeod’s work is how the author weaves into the narrative many different voices and perspectives, especially from the point of view of civilians caught up in the siege of Quebec.
Northern Armageddon currently occupies a position on my nightstand because it is my bedtime reading. Over the years, especially since slogging through readings for my PhD comprehensive exams, I’ve come to have a fraught relationship with bedtime reading. There have only been a few nonfiction or academic books that I’ve been able to read as bedtime reading. I have a lot of books to read. And I am notoriously bad at devoting time to reading. I always feel I should be doing something else. So far, Northern Armageddon is one of those books and that I read at night and fly through with relatively decent speed when I get a chance to read it.
Even with Fea’s author profile of MacLeod, I needed a kick in the pants to pick up a copy of Northern Armageddon. I didn’t need this kick out of a need for additional confirmation of the value of the work, but because I needed to be pushed over the edge to make an impulse buy at the campus bookstore. This extra kick was especially needed for making a purchase that would likely be something I read at night.
Headings: Good or Bad?
As I stood in the bookstore looking at online reviews of Northern Armageddon, I zeroed in on one review from Publishers Weekly. The review noted that “to include so many perspectives, [MacLeod] had to chop chapters into small subsections, hindering a smooth narrative.” Believe it or not, it is that one line that kicked me over the edge. I wanted to see how these “chop chapters” and “small subsections” worked as an aid to the reader.
I find that the subject headings utilized throughout the chapters are beneficial to me as a reader. The headings keep me on pace. It gives me confidence to pick the book up again after time passes between reading it. It makes reading less of a chore. The headings also help to understand the contend better because I know what is coming next. The Publishers Weekly review implies there is something wrong with structuring chapters via headings. The review almost insinuates that the use of headings is an easy way out for organizing a book with many different strands of historical perspectives and voices. MacLeod’s book is organized at both the macro and micro levels. At the sentence level, MacLeod’s writing isn’t absent of topic sentences or transitions. I find that the subheadings included in each chapter are a welcomed aid and not a hindrance.
(Lack of) Headings in My Own Writing
I think a lot about using headings in my writing. Mostly, I think about not using them. I’ve been with my partner for several years and she has read many drafts of my writing. A standard recommendation she makes is to use subject headings in my writing, even if only part of the drafting phase. I don’t think I’ve ever seriously taken up that advice. I’ve always felt that using subject headings equaled bad writing. I’ve felt headings are a cheap and easy way out of doing the hard work of figuring out organization, even if the headings are removed in the final version of a piece of writing.
A Change in Attitude Towards Headings
However, I have to admit my perspective is changing on headings and exploring that subtle shift is one reason I wanted to read Northern Armageddon. One reasons I’m open to exploring such shifts in my attitude towards reading is the discussion of the differences between academic and public writing. These discussions frequently occurring between historians on Twitter and elsewhere. (BTW: Get with it literature scholars. We need to have these discussions, too.) I’ve also been thinking more about using headings in my writings for Pedagogy and American Literature Studies (PALS). Over at PALS we’ve had discussions about how best to showcase our content. Our posts are longer than the typical blog post, frequently venturing towards the length of a short articles. The length of these pieces can make for difficult online reading. Given the length and medium of the writing on PALS, we’ve often discussed how and why we use headings and images in order to create a smoother reading experience for site visitors. The conundrum of balancing content and form was an a significant concern in writing and presenting my recent post on Hamilton, which was nearly 2,500 words. My Hamilton post ended up with a significant use of headings throughout the piece.
I’ve also been thinking about what books I’ve recently read cover-to-cover and enjoyed. Two books come to mind from my summer reading. As part of my work on the Moravians, I’ve recently read Craig D. Atwood’s Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem and Katherine Carté Engel’s Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America. Both of these books make use of subject headings within the chapters, certainly not to the degree of Northern Armageddon. The headings in the books by Atwood and Engel were used frequently enough to be a great aid to this reader.
What is Your Take?
Do you use headings in drafting your writing or producing the final product? Is there some time between the emergence of online writing and the use of subject headings? Do you think certain fields are friendlier to the idea of using headings? I’d love to hear your take on these questions!