From the Letters to the Editor column of the December 2010 issue of Perspectives on History
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Following Research Threads
To the Editor:
David L. Ransel warns in “The Ability to Recognize a Good Source” (Perspectives on History, October 2010) that “The danger is that our narrow focus on a current project may cause us to miss something altogether new and revealing,” and that “we can easily undervalue sources that fall into our laps.”
I know the feeling and learned the lesson. While researching local newspapers across northern Italy for reviews of Futurist Evenings of poetry, art, and mock riots advocating Italy’s entry into World War I, it became impossible for me to escape the constant drumbeat of “unrelated” editorials and news articles on what was perceived to be an epidemic of suicide among citizens of the newly unified nation.
I kept saying: “But I’m not here for that,” until the noise finally bursting through my ears said: “It doesn’t matter what you are looking for, if you found something else of importance go with it.” Then, years after the dissertation on codes of honor in Italy had been accepted I found myself an underemployed adjunct community college history instructor living in the Hudson Valley with more time to mow my lawn while mining those “unrelated” footnotes, and I wrote the now published/well-reviewed Tired of Living: Suicide in Italy from National Unification to World War I, 1860–1915. To turn around the old adage: Be careful what you don’t ask for, and remember what you forget, even if history is everything you remember after having forgotten the facts.
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