Back in Business: Thoughts At the Beginning of A New Semester

After a long blogging hiatus, I’m back, back in the middle of another rewarding and productive semester at the Harvard Academy here in Cambridge. After some rest at home in California for a week or two, it was off to Germany for nearly a month to see friends, meet with colleagues to discuss collaboration on potential future projects, and – what took me away from blogging for so long – to do a course of line edits on the manuscript for Developing Powers.

I had some experience editing my own prose when working (in the same fantastic Berlin library, as it turned out) on the introduction to Writings on War, but this was the biggest editing job I had ever faced. Some background reading helped: Virginia Tufte’s wonderful Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style to give me inspiration for how to restructure sentences, paragraphs, and even (sparingly) allow myself to be tempted by the passive voice; and William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book to steel myself with realism about how much work there was ahead. I would need a lot of faith in creative rewriting and the length of the slog: it took nearly the entire month (plus almost the entire Berlin–Chicago–Boston return flights!) to read through the entire 600-some pages of the first draft. Much red ink was spilled (passive!). Some tears were shed. But, hopefully, out of it was edited a more readable manuscript.

A glimpse into the mind of madness: my notes for an upcoming talk at Harvard, made using Literature and Latté's program Scapple

A glimpse into the mind of madness: my notes for an upcoming talk at Harvard, made using Literature and Latté’s program Scapple

Back at Harvard came – indeed, still comes – the hard part. There’s the usual mix of campus life, classes, and distractions, to keep me from weeping too much over my own prose: advanced Persian courses continue, reminding me with extracts from Ferdowsi how the Pashtun revanchist and Afghan memoirs that I’m reading and seeding into the manuscript text really aren’t that hard. There’s also the promise of future scholarly horizons: our readings remind us of the (comparative) conservatism of the Persian language, as well as its (underappreciated) reach, from Bosnia to northern India at its apex, perhaps even farther as a language of diplomacy and culture. The more that my own reading for edits of Developing Powers takes me back into the 18th and 19th century – less so for the period itself and moreso for what mid-century Afghans and Soviets thought the Durrani moment in world history meant for Cold War South Asia – the more that serious work on, say, relations between the Durranis and the Sikhs interests. Throw in a mix of Academy events and visiting speakers and there’s much to entertain, many a free lunch to be finagled.

Still, the main task is clear – lots of cuts, lots of smoothing of prose, lots of implementing of chicken-scribble-scratch that I wrote in the margins between too many cups of bad library coffee. If the first draft of the manuscript clocked in at around 250,000 words, the task is now to get it to around 140,000 words – near the upward limit of what most publishers will accept, let alone what people will actually read. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, but as Germano reminds us young scholarly writers, by the time we’re done editing one book, we find that we’re reading another one. Certain plot lines – for lack of a better word – that you thought were unimportant assert themselves more deeply. So, too, do certain characters, people whose trajectories and life stories course through your work. A book that I once thought was going to be a relatively straightforward comparison of different countries’ aid policies to Afghanistan during the Cold War – fueled by my Academy lunches with generous anthropologists – has become a framing-hungry vampire, moving from Comaroff and Comaroff to Mbembe to Sahlins in search of fresh blood with which to engorge itself.

A History Lesson for the Future: the more I read and revise manuscript chapters, the clearer it becomes that it’s crucial to take seriously mid-20th century Afghan and Soviet historiography on events as far back as the conquests of the Sikh Maharaja and his successor up to (but not beyond) the Pashtun frontier

Readings prompted from closer to home, do, too: re-reading essays by Suzanne Marchand on German Orientalism (there’s a chapter on Soviet scholarship on Afghanistan in the manuscript …) and listening and reading to the insightful Daniel Rodgers on American exceptionalism force me to think more about how Soviets and Afghans – particularly those party to the first generation of diplomatic relations between the two countries but before a coup against the Emir Amanullah, from 1919–1929 – thought about their own countries’ place in world history. The phrase “American exceptionalism” rolls off our Anglophone tongues, but it perhaps limits us from thinking about the way that Afghan or Soviet intellectuals thought of their own countries’ place in the history of the planet: vanguards of anti-colonialism; crusaders for the liberation of Pashtuns from centuries of Sikh–Anglo–Punjabi–Pakistani oppression; bearers of a Central Asian or Persianate liberal torch that the British Empire and, later, the United States, had squelched.

There’s much limpid prose, much flaccid syntax, much unclear argumentation to be corralled out of those words on the page in the next couple of weeks (a conference trip to Ohio and a big-time presentation at the Academy in late February and late March, respectively, should help motivate). But, as always, free reading (recently D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace) continues to inspire. “This girl not only kicks facts in the ass,” goes the description to a character, Julie Smith, in a DFW short story. “This girl informs trivia with import. She makes it human, something with the power to emote, evoke, induce, cathart.” Let’s hope that we historians take ourselves seriously enough to deal with something more than trivial in our work, but that we find the passion, time, and creative space to kick facts, prose, and complacency in the ass.


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