Reading a history book backwards

There’s something I’ve been trying this past year, and it’s been going really well. I’m excited to share it. It stems from my desire to be more knowledgeable about history.

When I was in college, I was most excited about taking classes in philosophy, literature, theology, those sorts of things. I took lots of classes of that sort, and learned plenty and overall enjoyed myself greatly.

And then I graduated, and I realized that I could study those things on my own time, at my own pace, in the order I want, often with much more profit than when I was studying the same texts for a class. How disappointing. Much of my college education began to feel a bit redundant.

I took some language classes as well in college, and some few history classes, and I left college resolving to study more languages and more history on my own time, to catch up on what I had missed. I believed they were important things to grasp.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I realized that unlike philosophy, history and languages are dreadful to study on your own. The structure of a class, the guidance of a professor, the company of fellow-sufferers, makes such a great difference. I failed abysmally in my early attempts to study these things after college. I took to telling people that if I could do my college education again, I would probably have focused much more on history and languages.

Recently, I’ve been trying to find ways to get better at teaching myself languages and history. The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is that consistent, small habits are even more important for studying independently than they are for learning in a class. But I’ve also discovered another valuable tip this past year.

I bought a book of Canadian history, because I am shamefully ignorant about the history of the country in which I have been a citizen all my life. I started reading it from the beginning, multiple times, and hardly made any headway.

And then, on a whim, I tried reading it in reverse. I read the last chapter. After all, that’s closest to me, most relevant to me. But there were aspects of that chapter that referred back to earlier chapters. So I read the second-last chapter, and then read the last chapter again. And then I read the third-last chapter, and the second-last, and the last. I’ve been continuing on in that same pattern ever since.

It’s a great way to read history. It keeps it interesting, and it helps everything make sense and fit into place.

This isn’t an approach you’d want to use in studying for a class in school, probably, because it’s incredibly slow. It requires the investment of much time and patience.

For self-study, though, if you’re not in a hurry, I currently feel like this is the best way to learn about history. Give it a try!

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