Tips for Reading War Books

by I.A. Isherwood

This week we will be discussing Henri Barbusse’s iconic war novel Under Fire. It is a really important book about the experience of French common soldiers and a good source for discussing the experience of war on the western front. There’s all of scratching, scrounging, spitting, and smoking of troops in the line and I am very much looking forward to our discussion this week.

I wanted to write very briefly on approaches to reading (and teaching) war literature. How should we read war books in a history class? This is a question I struggle with every semester and one for which I am perpetually interested in trying new things in the classroom. Using literature is a wonderful way to access historical events, but undergraduate historians often struggle in book discussions. So here are a few tips to get us started.

  • Remember your high school English teacher. There was a reason why you had to learn about plot, setting, characters, symbolism, important themes, etc. When looking at a work of fiction (and most non-fiction) outlining the important elements of a work demonstrates not only that you’ve done the reading, but that you are able to digest and explain it. You might have not loved everything you had to read (or didn’t read!) in high school, but your teachers gave you a basic format for understanding writing.
  • Use our friend Google and read about the book you are reading. I am often shocked that students don’t ‘google stalk’ the sources they are reading before coming into the classroom – it is so basic and easy to do. Look up some details about the book: Who wrote it? When was it written? What are some interesting things people say about it? All of this will inform your understanding of the book and add a layer of nuance to our conversation.
  • Use your gut to guide your interpretation. Do you like what you are reading? Do you not? Can you say why? Often our basic impressions of a work reflect something bigger about it, but we have to push those impressions to understand why they make us feel the way we do, and then articulate why this might be important for other people to understand. The tough thing is taking a basic impulse and turning it into insight – it requires some ‘wall staring’ where you sit and actually think about a work’s meaning. So after you finish reading a chapter, put your phone in your desk drawer, and think about what you’ve read for five minutes without any distractions. Then when you go to dinner with your friends tell them about the book and why you think it is important. (Their collective attention span will be 75 seconds, so be articulate) Dinner conversations are excellent practice for the classroom.

I will have some things to say about war literature as a genre later, but keep in mind that war books written by participants reflect both historical events and individual interpretations on those events. They are both reliable and unreliable sources (so are all sources, really) but are some of the best we have about the what it was actually like to witness the events we are studying. War books are full of energy and insight – so read carefully and bring your own energy and insights to class.