The Importance of Tedium

I’m taking a short break from “real” work to write this little blog post, mostly because composing prose makes me happy and compiling spreadsheets is just work—work like weeding a flower bed, or rolling coins—monotonous, tedious, dry, dull. But also meticulous—every little detail—which makes it worse, compared to, say, pounding nails into a fence or scrubbing a deck. Mustering the discipline to keep at it, hour after hour and day after day, is also work. But this is the work that makes the payoff of doing history (or archaeology) possible. When you read the book or watch the documentary or tour the exhibit, you don’t see the mountain of tedious work that lies beneath that final product.

importance of tedium image

This is not a moan-and-groan. What I’m doing right now is going through the master’s log of HM Schooner Sultana—or, rather, my notes on it, as I went through the log itself over ten tedious work days last September in Maryland—and compiling a spreadsheet of every recorded encounter she had with another vessel in her four years on station in British America, from fall of 1768 to fall of 1772. I’m in the summer of ’71 right now and I’m up to Line 243. Date, location, vessel name, vessel type, from, to, cargo, action, outcome. Again. Again. And again.

But such tedious compilations are the gold mines of history. From this spreadsheet, I can think of so many interesting extrapolations already. What percentage of vessels stopped were schooners like her? What percentage of those were on coastal routes? Island routes? There’s a whole list in my head—and soon, there will be a list on paper. The fun is in manipulating the data to answer questions—but first, you have to compile the data. And that may be tedious, but it also requires understanding the source material. I could hire someone off the street to enter words in a spreadsheet, but I can’t hire someone off the street to understand what they’re reading so they will know what words to put in the spreadsheet. I’m trained to do that, and I’m the one who read the original source document. So it’s up to me, and knowing what I’m going to be able to get out of this keeps me going with it.

There will be more spreadsheets to do. And more source documents to spend more tedious days reading. But, in the end, it will all result in a great book that will bring this all back to life. My parents grew up knowing that if you wanted a good cotton crop, you’d be spending day after hot exhausting day chopping weeds with a hoe in the fields. This is a far cry from chopping cotton, but the analogy holds, at least so far as it can, given that we’re talking about work you do sitting on your butt in an air-conditioned room. Speaking of which, it’s good to get up frequently, blink your eyes, walk around, do something else for a few minutes. And then get back to it. The only way to the end starts with Line 244.

15 June 1771, near Sandy Hook, Diana, brig, Liverpool, New York, deal goods, F[ired 3 guns]

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