Reading and rabbit holes

Let’s say you want to read some books on Venice, maybe because you are traveling there, or you are just curious about the Renaissance, or about the history of the visual arts.

Maybe you will write me and ask: “Tyler, which books should I read on Venice?”  Now, there are many fine books on Venice, but I actually would not approach the problem in that manner.  In fact, I don’t know a single particular “must read” book on Venice that stands out above all others, nor do I know a book that necessarily will draw you in to the study of Venice if you are not already interested.

I instead suggest a “rabbit holes” strategy, a term coined in this context by Devon Zuegel. Come up with a bunch of questions about Venice you want answered, and then simply do whatever you must to pursue them.  Here are a few such possible questions, drawn up by me:

How did Venetian architecture draw upon Byzantine styles?

How did the Venetian salt trade evolve? Glasswork? Publishing?

What were the origins of accounting in Venice?

Why did Gordon Tullock think the Venetians had the finest and wisest constitution of history?  How much power did the Doge really have?

How did the different Bellinis reflect different eras of Venetian history, both artistic and otherwise?

How did oil painting come to Venice and why did it become so prominent there?

Why are late Titian paintings better than almost everything else in the visual arts?

What factors led to the decline of Venice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?  How did Napoleon treat Venice?

Now, those are just sample questions, obviously you could come up with your own and add to or alter that list.  But here is the thing: simply pursue the list of questions.  It may well induce you to buy books, such as this work on Venetian architecture and the East.  Or it may lead you down Googled rabbit holes.  Or it may lead you to…

Follow the questions, not the books per se.  Don’t focus on which books to read, focus on which questions to ask.  Then the books, and other sources, will follow almost automatically.

Read in clusters!  Don’t obsess over titles.  Obsess over questions.  That is how to learn best about many historical areas, especially when there is not a dominant book or two which beat out all the others.

My question: Is it ever possible for an individual book to present and realize this very process for you?  If not, why not?


To ask such good questions you must already have good answers. The best book in Venice/Florence/Medici was by the fiction writer Tim Parks.

Bonus trivia: Venice was a Byzantium client, which is about as counter-intuitive as the Saxons in Sicily learning Arabic, which also happened.

Yeah. I'm reading this and rolling my eyes wondering: which book should I read in order to find out that Venice even had a salt trade?

I was thinking, "who knew there were different types of Bellinis?"

I always made mine with Prosecco and peach puree.

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John Davis's History of Venice is good and well-written. It makes a nice companion to Norwich. If you want a look into the beautiful, elegant remnant that is modern Venice, Donna Leon's Brunetti crime novels are great and beautifully written and imagined.
We will one day, I hope, leave Byzantium as a name - one that the actual people who lived there and then would not have understood - for the Eastern Roman Empire that endured from the fall of the West in ~ 476 to its own final destruction in 1453, a destruction brought about in large part by the Venetian-directed Fourth Crusade that culminated with the sacking and plundering of Constantinople in 1204 and the breakup of the empire. Venice considered itself part of the Roman Empire from its founding and ties between Venice and Constantinople were close for a long time. As time went on, Venice became more and more powerful and aggressive as a trading entity and inevitably became a rival to the Romans. The Romans were going through economic hardships brought about by the need to defend themselves against waves of hostile powers: the Arabs, the Turks, the Bulgarians, the Pechenegs, the Rus, the Normans. They sought to economize by, in effect, hiring the Venetians to be their navy. This helped them overcome the Norman invaders, but left them helpless when Venice finally turned against them in the Fourth Crusade. The whole story is more complicated than that, but this is a kind of outline of it. The Venetian ploy did not end well for the Venetians. They had a brilliant ascendency, but wound up in a series of wars with the now unconstrained Ottomans who were seeking ever more territory and power, and - at the same time with Genoa - an even more aggressive and ruthless marine power. Then the Mediterranean trade collapsed as safer routes for trade evolved and Venice began its long decline that ended with Napoleon's conquest of the city in 1797.

The proposal would be an iterative process. For the unfamiliar, maybe their first question is just "What's with the canals?" or "How did the Jewish community fare in Venice?" or something else that sparked their interest in the first place. Those questions may also make it easier to make a recommendation, as the embed the querent's present level of knowledge about the topic.

After those first few questions and a book or two or maybe a visit, you may start to have questions more like the ones provided in the post.

GS, you make an excellent point--the most important part of any journey is the beginning (Plato??). Just move and follow the interesting.

Na. What you're describing is research, not reading. B-O-R-I-N-G. A book, well written, has a beginning and an end and a narrative that stretches between them and makes them a whole. If the narrative is only one of many realities, so what? It's still a whole. You'll never find a whole narrative doing research. You'll always have obtuse and nagging blanks, facts and events dangling meaninglessly in space. Until there is a narrative, there is no foundation.

That's what you do with fiction books.

When it comes to non-fiction most books are just two, maybe three interesting ideas stretched to 300 pages with anecdotes and trivias.

There are some pearls which you will obviously read from cover to cover but reading each business/science/history book in this way for sake of reading is incredible waste of time.

But I guess what Tyler also meant here is that your interests should lead you to specific titles, not the other way round. So if your questions led you already to specific book like "specific work on Venetian architecture" - then you can go on with this book from cover to cover?

"most books are just two, maybe three interesting ideas stretched to 300 pages"

Yes, that's true! :). Hearty agreement. Dont read those. Find the gem, read that.

"Let’s say you want to read some books on religion. Come up with a bunch of religious questions you want answered, and then simply do whatever you must to pursue them. If you can't answer them, don't believe the religion."

A good strategy that led to my atheism.

Not good enough from the philosopher's own perspective.

Does anybody go to the library anymore? Believe it or not, but the internet doesn't have all the answers and some of the best stuff is only in print. Especially when it comes to old, stodgy subjects like history or anything published more than 30 years ago. Google is very convenient, yes, and having easy information at your fingertips is seductive but quality beats quantity so it is worth putting on some comfortable shoes to traipse the halls of a good university library and pore over some dusty, musty texts. It's good for you and keeps you in shape.

That’s what I used to love about libraries – it’s not so much the exercise of getting there or the hunt of finding something interesting. What happens to me is I’ll go to the venice section and find there are a wide range of books and then visually and tactilely troll through them until I find ones that pique my interest and suggest the questions I should be asking about Venice.

Interesting idea. It might be a superior strategy, but there are some circumstances where "what's the best book?" is the best question to ask: if I already have a decent base of knowledge about a topic and want to delve further into a specific sub-topic.

In those situations often all I need is the (or a) good book that gives me the in-depth answer that I'm seeking with plenty of detail. And then I need no other book.

Obviously this strategy is inadequate if I want to exhaustively research what people have to say about the sub-topic, or if I lack the background knowledge to really understand and evaluate what the chosen book is saying. But for the intermediate situations, this find a single good book strategy can suffice.

"'Tyler, which books should I read on Venice?'...I actually would not approach the problem in that manner....Come up with a bunch of questions."

Actually, the hypothetical person did start with a question: which book should he read. So, the real question is, How does one come up with a good set of questions?

A good way to have the basic knowledge to ask questions is to read a book.

For Venice, I recommend J J Norwich's History of Venice.

But maybe there's a better book. Let's ask Tyler.

More easy way of Rabbit Holing.

Go to reddit's Ask Historians subreddit, which is in r/askhistorians

Search for the particular place you want to learn about. (Such as Bengal, Paris, Italy etc or any other topic.)

Browse the questions. Read the most upvoted answers.

You will get lot of information, and useful resources about the topic.

When it comes to Venice, TC sure knows how to compose probing and searching questions for curious readers. Thanks, TC.

Now: how many books about Venice (or concerning La Serenissima) did TC read in order to compose these informed questions?

At what moment does curiosity provoke questions concerning a subject? What sources are apt to both answer and pose questions? and when do sources more likely only stimulate further questioning? Is a source that fails to stimulate further questioning a source worth consulting?

--and how DID Casanova escape from his Venetian prison?

Tyler is an extremely unusual and highly knowledgeable autodidact. His advice simply doesn't work for the vast majority of people. As noted already, these are not questions that would occur to someone who doesn't already know the subject.

He pretends to be, but when does he ever demonstrate more than the most cursory knowledge of anything?

Unfair! It's a pretty good knowledge of the pages he happens to have read.

Why does the credit for the first beginnings of modern banking practices belongs to Venice?

Would Venetian bankers then not need to hold any capital when lending to its government… because it was supposedly 100% risk free?

Did someone before 1988’s Basel Accord require Venetian banks to hold different capital for different assets based on ex ante perceived credit risks, instead of just one set amount of capital against the whole bank's portfolio?

I don't know. I'm betting that they did that, required or not.

Tyler, where could I read Gordon Tullock's views about the Venetian constitution?

Speaking of Venice, I tried this approach earlier this year. See: and

The best book about Venice is the one that answers the question "Why Venice?" Or, for economist-minded fans of this blog, "Why did someone invest a trillion dollars (a rough point estimate of the value of the place) on a small, sinking, swampy island in the middle of a lagoon?" It has no business existing. The location isn't even fit for a fishing village. And yet it once housed the seat of an empire, the palaces and Titians just being the inevitable detritus of such.

As a tourist I really liked it (but preferred Florence). But as an economist (recovering) I was absolutely gob-smacked by the sheer, miraculous improbability of the place. So I read a couple of books about it. Obviously the authors were fans of the place, but failed to fully capture how amazing it is. So in my view the best book about Venice remains to be written. Until then, you have to go.

When I started here, all of this was swamp. All the kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third one. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up.

Brad's comment and the King's comment overlap. The original answer to "Why Venice?" is the Huns. In the 4th and 5th centuries, they were a predatory confederation, like the Vandals but more powerful and they moved into Europe and destroyed northern Italian cities in the middle of the 5th century. Refugees (seeing how its marshes protected Ravenna) moved onto the marsh islands on the Adriatic shore and Venice came into being.

Firstly you'd have to have read a bit to ask those questions. Secondly, you'd have to read a lot more to answer them. I think a few classic general books about Venice and then following up on more specific interest as inclined would be the more efficient strategy.

"What's the best book?" is some times a good question when you're trying to get a general idea of a subject. And, often, the answer is a good textbook.

Why are there mountains? Grotzinger and Jordan, Understanding Earth

Do economists actually know anything? Cowen and Tabarrok, Modern Principals of Economics?

"Cowen and Tabarrok, Modern Principals of Economics"

Oh come off it, they are not that important.

I second the nomination of Norwich’s “A History of Venice”. Great research, and both insightful and an enjoyable read. When I asked one of the English-language book sellers in Venice, three years ago, that man also recommended Norwich’s book.

"My question: Is it ever possible for an individual book to present and realize this very process for you? If not, why not?"

Yes, the best books are the ones that teach you how to ask the right questions.

You have to read John Berendt's "City of Fallen Angels."

How about looking the influence of the slave trade on Venetian prosperity?

"Is it ever possible for an individual book to present and realize this very process for you?"

I think so. If, for example, the question is, "how can I understand politics better?", the right answer might be to read "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" -- not because it answers the question, but because it helps you select the right questions to ask.

There is an entire book, whose name escapes me at present, written because the author had asked themselves why every important and influential book on politics and democracy in the Italian Rennaissance was written in Florence and yet Venice was som much better at politics and democracy than Florence despite not producing a single durable work of political philosophy or intellectual treatise on either subject.

YOUR question: Is it ever possible for an individual book to present and realize this very process for you? If not, why not?
MY answer: "WWHW, Why, What, How-To, What-If: Easily Create a Book, Podcast, or Online Course In Just a Few Easy-to-Follow Steps" This is a book about the process of asking questions in order to create knowledge, either in your mind or in the minds of others.

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