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?