In Clare’s fourth post for PhD2Published she explores how she has tried to recover what she calls ‘the lost art of reading’. In the spirit of AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) she also makes those all important connections between good reading practice and academic writing.
For fear of sounding like a precocious child, my mother says I read from the time I could physically pick up a book. This means that I have had plenty of years to perfect this fine art and could surely claim to be fairly proficient. After all, it is not only my job to read and engage with scholarly texts, I am (like the rest of humanity) bombarded with words all day from my morning Twitter check to my evening bed book.
However, I recently came to the shocking conclusion that I can’t read or rather have forgotten how to read. This alarming realisation has been a moment of anagnorisis in what has otherwise been a wonderfully restful sabbatical term of conferences and writing. I am not suggesting, of course, that I cannot comprehend sentences (although there are certainly some mornings when this would be true) but rather I have lost the art of sitting with a book and really engaging with it. I am an accomplished skim reader and a consummate finder of useful quotes, but I am not a reader.
If November was AcWriMo then perhaps December should be BoReMo (Book Reading Month), although that acronym sounds a little more ‘street’ than I intended. December could be a four week pre-Christmas training session, a chance to regain my reading abilities. In this, my fourth article for PhD2Published, I wanted to simply share my experiences over the past few months as I have tried to recover the lost art of reading:
1) Setting challenges: I started in relatively relaxed fashion with E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a classic readable text with pictures! I then moved on to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, both texts that influence my field without being central to it. I began by reading for just an hour of so and then cordoned off a couple of hours. I found that in setting myself reading challenges like this (whether time-based or text-based) I began to enjoy the power of a well-written sentence and the chance to grapple with large ideas.
2) Reading every word: When my reading crisis first hit, I noted that one of my primary problems was that I was actually physically unable to read every word on a page, unless those words belonged to Elizabeth Gaskell (my love of Victorian literature cannot be abated). I got the general gist of the page (mostly) but didn’t really work through sentences and follow the path the author had so pain-stakingly laid out for me. There are times, of course, when this is unnecessary – perhaps you are looking for a certain idea or cross reference or are only interested in one chapter. But there is pleasure in really getting to grips with the whole argument of a book.
3) Writing and reading: I’ve tried to develop a new habit of writing notes even for books I am not going to directly quote from. I now have an even more complicated notebook system than previously, and have acquired a book journal which makes me sound like an Edwardian lady but is extremely helpful when you want to remember what you’ve read. It is not a matter of writing quotes, but also jotting down my initial response, intertextual references or (in fear of sounding a little like a book group of one) simply noting how I feel about an idea. I’m also carving out time to go back over these scribbles, prompting my brain to remember what I’ve read and forcing me to become more active.
4) Writing what I read: As AcWriMo has progressed you may well have found yourself once again focusing on the way you write. Through Helen Sword’s magnificent Stylish Academic Writing (Santa should carefully place a copy in every academic’s stocking this Christmas – preferably adorned with useful sticky notes) I have been rethinking the way I write, who I write for and how I might create engaging scholarly work. While reading through my sabbatical book list I’ve become just as interested in the way scholars write as in the themes they might focus on. One of the wonderful things about Gombrich, for example, is that despite being an Oxford academic and accomplished scholar, The Story of Art is as engaging and accessible as it is complex and challenging. Currently I find that the more I read, the better writer I become, challenged by the marvellous prose of many and disappointed by the stodgy syntax of others.
5) Enjoying reading: This might seem very strange but academia often disables our ability to actually enjoy the written word. We are reviewing a book for a deadline, trawling through new books because we have to keep up with our field, searching for texts that might inspire our students or reading out of obligation. We might even feel somewhat frustrated with the reading process, particularly if we are desperate to get on with writing the next paper, book or thesis. Perhaps we feel guilty for spending hours sitting in a chair reading with a cup of tea (NB this guilt is absolutely justified if you are reading Hello or Fifty Shades of Grey but less so if you are wrestling with Adorno). Unlike writing, reading is far less easy to evaluate. We can formulate aims for the former – word counts or numbers of pages – but it is far more difficult for the latter. For when reading, one page might take us half an hour as we ponder the ideas fully (I certainly found this with Emerson) or we might crash through a book in a morning. So, I’ve been trying to learn to simply enjoy the act of reading, being rigorous about my use of time and guarding it as jealously as I guard my writing time.
As I near the end of my sabbatical, I am determined to continue on with my reading schedule as the pressures of teaching, admin and general university life return. Learning to read has been both a shocking and an illuminating process, akin to those first steps with Enid Blyton, Janet and John and the Malory Towers books. If reading is, at its heart, a quest for knowledge and a vulnerable opening of oneself to new ideas and challenges, then it is a discipline that must be vital to all academics.