by Séveric Yersin |

Last year, I started to write short critics of newly published books for a daily newspaper. I write approximatively one critic per month. Since I do this voluntarily, I choose the book freely depending on what is interesting me at the moment. Sometimes, my critic resembles an academical review, sometimes it’s more like an essay on the topic.

I know of one person who reads my critics and whom I’m not related to, so there’s that.

Everyone is happy: the newspaper gets content for free, the publisher gets advertisement for free, and I get books for free. However, this last point is only the second best advantage for me. More than books, what I get is the incentive to read outside of my academic bubble.

Still, I usually read books in my area of expertise – Swiss history of the 19th and 20th centuries. The reason I don’t choose books about other periods of time is that I’d have to spend more time to write something completely at least mildly interesting. And as every PhD candidate knows, time is short. Otherwise, I think that I would try some other kitchen: there’s plenty of great historians out there, working on topics I’ve never heard of.

But even if I restricted myself to this very narrow subject – I must admit that contemporary Swiss history has to be described as such –, I still discover historians, methods or topics I didn’t know before. If I did not have to write this monthly review, I would probably never buy half of the books I received. And if I had, they would probably wait very patiently in a stack of books that I will contemplate with some guilt – this book-hoarding kind of thing is called “Tsundoku” in Japanese. 

Having committed myself to read and comment on a new book every month apart from my regular readings, I read and write more largely than ever before.

Time is short, the clock is ticking, the funding is disappearing, and everybody tries to go through their PhD thesis as efficiently as possible while allowing themselves enough procrastination time to avoid losing their minds completely. But taking time to have a meaningful side activity is definitely worth it: by reading these books, I get to know different kinds of historians. This helped me understand my profession, since I now see the variety of writers under another light: there’s the young and ambitious scholar looking to find a place in the field, the old and well-established professor happy to publish their older works without changing a comma, the historically-trained journalist writing a new book every two years, or the editor who doesn’t want to commit to such an exhausting project as a new book and so collect the work of ten other colleagues and sums them up in an impressive but otherwise short introduction.

This, in a few words, is one of the best things I get from reading outside my bubble every month: I read these books with fresh eyes, without real use, out of interest. Something that we, PhD candidates, tend to forget.

PS : you can read my reviews for free on the website of Le Courrier.

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

Séveric Yersin is a PhD candidate at the University of Basel and at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. His research focuses on the History of Public Health in Switzerland between the 19th and 20th Century, in particular on the institutionalisation of the fight against epidemics.