Friday, 24 April 2015

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