The messy orangutang
Or, How I do my book research
I wrote about Liz Truss as Barry Goldwater for the New Statesman.
One or two people have asked this question, so here goes. I cannot imagine I have anything to add to what is already generally known, but it might be interesting. (I have worked as a researcher in one form or another for twelve years or more now.)
Get on the phone. This is not always possible, but I have had calls with people who knew some of my subjects like Audrey Sutherland and Penelope Fitzgerald and a few specialists. Sometimes you can accumulate more good leads in an hour on the phone than a day at the desk.
Email. I have sent questions to many people. Almost all reply. High level American academics are the best. I cannot thank these people enough, especially Tyler Cowen who answers even my stupid questions. Asking stupid questions is important. In my day job, I often simply say, “I don’t understand”. It works! (See points 5 and 6).
Talk about your research. Posting charts I find that probably won’t go into the book or snippets from research often brings people to my inbox or DMs, always with useful or interesting information. If you think you know something about late bloomers—however tangentially connected it might be—please get in touch. My father recently recommended a useful book to me. It might be the first (or second) time in my life I have taken his advice on what to read, which shows you how single-minded I have become.
Follow the footnotes. Scientific papers are outside my expertise zone so I end up following many many footnotes to be able to understand them. This leads to many discoveries. Supplementing with popular books is good—but don’t necessarily accept the book’s version or vision.
Be your own orangutang.
Relentlessly ask chatgpt questions that relate to your book. “Explain this to me.” Also Humata.ai and Consensus are really useful. (I tried Poe but I don’t like it: it can’t cope with my typos. I’m on the waiting list for Bing.)
Expect a low rate of return. I am using a small amount of what I find. But the trail always takes you to something. Samuel Johnson said you have to turn over half a library to write one book.
Randomise your search in the library. Surf the catalogue and pick things off the shelves. I have looked at books like Lives of the Hangmen, which didn’t turn out to be useful but could have been. There was a book about nuns I ended up using. I found a book about mid-life crises written by a psychotherapist in the 1960s incredibly useful, even though I disagree with almost everything in it.
Don’t make too many notes. I forgot, when I got round to it in my pile, why I had selected The Organisation Man by William H. Whyte but it turned out to explain something about Eisenhower that nothing else had. You need to be open to those connections. Index hunting can limit that. If the reason you picked up the book is to find something vital and specific, then you need a note. Otherwise, just pile them up and gut them like fish.
Be messy. I am a big fan of post-it notes and index cards. Research is a very messy process and I don’t make too much effort to neaten it. The mess creates connections. You want the flexibility to move ideas and facts around and catch associations.
Write by hand. Your memory knows more than you can consciously remember. I like to write on the train or in the library or in the evenings, just fill up a few sheets and see what I come up with. When I type it into the chapter, I supplement with all my notes and papers and so forth, without following too closely what I wrote. It’s about finding ideas and structures, maybe some phrasing. You could talk it all out equally well, and you should (see points 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6) but you do then need to scribble it down. This too goes into your memory.
I should stress that I haven’t yet published this book and you may decide that my advice isn’t worth taking. Still, I said I’d answer this question.
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