How do academics read so many books?

Scientia imperii decus et tutamen est

First, let's interrogate the truth apparently proposed or implied in the titular question. Would it not be more accurate to state: it is believed that academics read lots of books. Is this true?

For many undergraduates the notion that their Professor has read more than fifty books secures her a place in the same league as Wittgenstein or Dr Johnson. Far out! Strange! A living geek-book. So, the revered state of being widely read is a relative judgment.

But let's grant that academics do 'read' rather a lot; perhaps more than average, perhaps excessively. For teachers in the arts, and in the social sciences, academic books are their primary tools and resources. Text is a living laboratory. Surely they spend every moment of their lives reading. That is to say, they might entertaining the possibility of reading in those great vistas of time the yawn like chasms between teaching, assessing, writing, and generally administering.

In part, it is true that academics delve into books, gingerly excavating their contents, rather than ploughing through them word by word (pencil in hand). In most cases, skimming is superior to delving. Academics are capable of attentive close reading; they are also into the business of Further Reading. But they have their gaps, their silences, their weak points. Mastery of the secondary literature, even in our chosen specialist field, is always slipping away from us. So many new books are waving to us on the horizon of the sea of erudition. But there's often the sense of a deluge of print.

Bearing in mind that every career depends on publication, it follows that the quantity published has been increasing rapidly since the 1960s when one article on kinship ties in Beowulf was enough to secure a life journey through academia. Every year, for instance, several hundred 'new' articles are written on gothic monsters. This is the Frankenstein industry, a monster of academia's making, a grotesque outpouring supplied daily with books cobbled together from the dead remnants of their recent predecessors.

For serious academics, the detailed dissection of books is an honour afforded only to the books that are absolutely crucial to their work, or that they have been asked to formally review. This is where close reading flexes its muscles and surgically inspects the inner workings of the textual body.

Nonetheless, it would generally be more true to say that academics BUY lots of books, rather than reading them, in the strict sense of a sensitive and appreciative cover-to-cover engagement.

Academics also BORROW lots of books (as you will recognise if you have any academic friends visiting...)

For academics it is not an uncommon experience for the piles of academic books to WAIT

on their desks,
on their chairs,
on their kitchen floor,
beside the bed,
in the lavatory,
in the garden shed,
left on the bus,
bulging in a recycled bag, &c

... just waiting for that UTOPIAN moment when

all students vanish from view,
when term is over,
when that article is finished for the Journal of Unread Studies,
when the last meeting is over,
when the Head of Department stops talking
when the head of exam administration stops calling,
when they've watched the last episode of The Wire
and the last essay is marked,
and the children are fed ...

(I'm not including doctoral students in this category. Obviously they have sufficient time to wade through the complete works of Aquinas or John Dewey in order to research and craft an exemplary footnote.)

SO, rather than reading a book from cover to cover, which is frankly a little OLD-FASHIONED,

  • memorise the title - some are self-explanatory, witty and memorable. Knowing what books to recommend with accurate reference is the sign of absolute professionalism.

  • digest the summary (publisher's blurb on the back of the book). At this stage you are able to discuss the book in some detail and you will be able to position it in relation to the main intellectual currents of our time.

  • skim through the acknowledgements (how much money did they 'secure' from the Leverhulme Trust in 2001); how many research libraries did they visit; who read the final drafts and offered help...

  • leaf through the index and check the most cited authorities (Habermas, Deleuze, Zizek, Lacan, Spivak, Foucault, hooks ...). Now you are really getting into the detail and to progress to expert status you need to notice who has been oddly missed out. What? a book on diversity in education and no bell hooks? scandal! check out any reviews to gain a diversity of insights and critical opinions

  • explore the footnotes (actually these are now typically the annoying endnotes that will have you dizzy with see-sawing from back to front) are where you really dig deep into the reading. This is a great opportunity to investigate the scholarly use of primary and secondary sources. In fact, I have met academics who spend most of their time working through the footnotes, spotting gaps, missing links, inaccuracies and occasional triumphs of erudition. A whole reputation can fall in a footnote.
By now you will be really hooked, so be cautious.

It's time to risk a critical examination of the Preface, or even the Introduction, where you will often discover a convenient summary of the treasures still locked up in the main body of the book.
  • Locate the most significant chapter by reading the chapter titles. Getting stuck in the wrong chapter could be a disaster and hinder your progress through the Gothic 'PILES of the UN-READ.'

Put a date in the DIARY.

Schedule some quality reading time, free from distractions.

As I wait for the day to arrive I sometimes risk a random page from a random book. This is SERENDIPITY and it is recommended when you have lots of miscellaneous books and writer's block has kicked in.

READING DAY has arrived.

Returning to the TARGET book, at this point I make an assessment of the elegance of the prose, the inventiveness of the ideas, the ingenuity of the argument, the weight of the evidence, and the authority of the scholarship.

Is this an author who is WELL-READ ?

I am now ready for the SUBLIME experience of reading a book from beginning to end.

Until the PHONE rings ...

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Further reading

University Students share their tips on How to Read a Paper


  1. Celebrating the 100th community blog post, today. Ian

  2. This rings so true. Forwarding it to all my fellow ivory citizens

  3. True for some Public Librarians too!

  4. a little too general - perhaps a sign of the "research lite" that you refer to.

    Arts and Social Sciences - hopefully rely on experience in addition to, and even more than texts. Life should be the laboratory.

    And what you have stated is why the academy is in crisis and there is very little respect for education or scholarhip.

  5. My verdict on books I haven't read | by Morven Crumlish


  6. Arguably, one may glorify breadth of reading at the expense of depth of insight.

    I suspect that (Francis Bacon) had an answer to the challenge that coverage presents

    "Read not to contradict, and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, some few to be chewed and digested."

    Students are perhaps not as adept as academics (under the pressure of time) are in the art of seeming well-read with less effort and with reduced thoroughness.

    Also entertaining is Pierre Bayard's book (pace David Lodge) on this topic

  7. I love this article. It's interesting... this 'way' of dealing with reading is called *shelf help* in the world of therapists. Francis Bacon was right. To me, he's saying that reading for the sake of reading is the way to truly gain all the author seeks to convey (and all the things that are conveyed simply because 'the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts), rather than seeing a book as a tool; to be used in it's most efficient manner. Obviously Academia cannot help to promote this way of working. Goal orientated reading and an almost unlimited list of resources means that the tool strategy is the only way to wade through the huge amount of works available when timescale and outcome are paramount.

    In my experience (note experience, not fact), true wisdom is gained from studying for studying sake (in any area, not just this). I appear well read, but scratch under the surface and you will discover that I understand the shape of the concept, but there is no depth to that understanding. That depth is where all the nuances lie; where the beauty/life changing experiences/horror etc resides.

    I am currently failing to read Freakonomics again. Yes I've read it. Yes I can discuss particular statistics and the results. However, when I recall the book in comes in disparate flashes with no connections. I know I am missing so many of the points.

    My partner, is seemingly, the diametric opposite of an academic. He is heavily kinesthetic and has always struggled with the written word. His curiosity about the world is a massive driver, especially as he fell through the cracks during his school years, but knows that the knowledge is out there.

    When I met him, it would take him three months to read a book (based on around an hour and a half a day) simply because his inability to 'picture the scene' meant the words had no context. He struggled on, invariably dictionary in hand, just because he wanted to know what was in there. It is that thirst for contents that changes the understanding. He has no expectation other than the authors words.

    For an 'uneducated' man, his width and depth of knowledge in his chosen subjects is second only to that of published academics. To be honest, I long for a time where I can support him through Uni.... if nothing else, I believe the lecturers would find him a joy to teach.

    I'm saddened that knowledge has become career driven. I understand that 500,000 History of Art graduates are not going to help the economy; but they will help our culture, our community, our joie de vivre. All these things contribute massively to what it is to be human.

    I apologise for the gratuitous use of quotes and semi colons. I'm an ex salesman not an academic. I seek to create the sound of my writing in the hope I can convey my message better.

    Or in other speak... 'I bloody love English me'

  8. Halo Jones - - - I feel honoured that you've taken the time to compose your thoughts and responses in this way. I agree with almost everything that you say, especially the notion of a nobility of struggle that learning and scholarship involves. While the educational environment may also be narrowing, and it is certainly more dependent in certain respects on money to gain access to its institutional manifestations, I'm cautious about idealising the past. Many aspects of the medieval curriculum were geared to specific professions such as the clergy, medicine, or the law. I strongly agree that we miss a lot from a book by half-reading, part-reading, and by skimming and skipping, as strategies to cope with our abundant worlds of texts. We're doing it with people as well: failing to listen actively and wholeheartedly, and responsively. The vice of our age of speed and simulated experiences?

  9. This is my reading life, in a nutshell.

  10. Good article, true for many people, me included. St. Augustine who was considered one the most learned men read no more than a hundred books. But here is the key, he re-read them several times. A thing we seldom do nowadays, we seldom re-read and re-re-read nor memorize passages. Bests. Angelo Paratico

  11. It's an interesting point, Angelo. But I suspect that St Augustine's 100 books in turn referred to several thousand books and manusctripts that were a summation of all classical learning from Greek, Latin, and Arabic sources. Clearly, before the 16thC books were also very expensive and difficult to acquire. But we should take seriously the notion that depth of reading rather than width/breadth, may be more valuable and productive.

  12. A note from poet and critic Ezra Pound:

    When you start searching for ‘pure elements’ in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:

    Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.
    The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.
    The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn’t do the job quite as well.
    Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when the literature of a given country is in good working order, or when some particular branch of writing is ‘healthy’. For example, men who wrote sonnets in Dante’s time, men who wrote short lyrics in Shakespeare’s time or for several decades thereafter, or who wrote French novels and stories after Flaubert had shown them how.
    Writers of belles-lettres. That is, men who didn’t really invent anything, but who specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn’t be considered as ‘great men’ or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.
    The starters of crazes.

    Until the reader knows the first two categories he will never be able ‘to see the wood for the trees’. He may know what he ‘likes’. He may be a ‘compleat book-lover’, with a large library of beautifully printed books, bound in the most luxurious bindings, but he will never be able to sort out what he knows to estimate the value of one book in relation to others, and he will be more confused and even less able to make up his mind about a book where a new author is ‘breaking with convention’ than to form an opinion about a book eighty or a hundred years old.

    He will never understand why a specialist is annoyed with him for trotting out a second- or third-hand opinion about the merits of his favourite bad writer.

  13. I've noticed that your article deals primarily with academic books - what about 'real' literature? I'd rather like to know how well-read the average academic was in canonical works - any ideas?

    1. Not many academic are general readers of the classics. Many of them have quite a lot of gaps in their cultural literacy.

  14. That might lead to some rather depressing conclusions! How many academics these days would be familiar with Homer, Virgil, Dante, Dickens or Proust ?!

  15. Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences

    (Quibble Academic, 2013)

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