I’ve been thinking a good bit about reading lately. Some of it comes from a stalled summer reading list. Some of it comes from the growing awareness that I don’t really read enough. I’ve been shamed lately when I hear about the prodigious amounts of reading my colleagues do and recognize more and more that I’m struggling to keep up with recent developments in my field.
I’ve also become aware that my reading has largely become practical. I read manuscripts that I’m peer reviewing. I read books that I’ve been asked to review in publications. When I do read, I tend to read rather surgically, ferreting out specific types of information, arguments, and even just mining for citations (which I then read for more citations. It’s really just citations all the way down.)
Finally, I’ve started to embrace serious reading on digital devices on a more regular basis. This summer I made my first effort to read an academic book on my Kindle and I’ve slowly converted most of my reading list to pdfs.
My thinking about reading has led me three places.
1. Find Some Focus. One of the challenges I’ve faced lately is my research has become too disparate stretching from the Northern Plains to Cyprus and Greece. I need to find a way to refine my focus to prioritize at least some of my reading. For example, I’ve been carrying around a copy of Thansis Vionis 2013 book on the Medieval Cyclades. Clearly, this is a priority for my work in the Argolid and even on Cyprus, but for whatever reason, the book in its unread state has come to represent my failures as a serious scholar.
I need to establish a list of works and prioritize my reading not because I want to my focused, professional reading to take over my reading universe, but to help to put some limits on my surgical reading and free up time to read more broadly.
2. Read to Read. I tell my graduate students that most of the habits that I’ve formed over my academic career developed either during my preparation for my comprehensive exams or during the most intense stages of dissertation writing. In fact, I suspect that comprehensive exams are less valuable for what you read and remember, and more valuable for the habits that you form.
When I was reading for comps some 20 years ago (!!) I read a couple books a week for around 18 months. I took some notes on them, read some reviews, and generally tried to think broadly about works that fell far outside my area of research specialization. In other words, I developed the habit of reading to read, not toward some specific and practical research goal (putting aside the goal of passing my comprehensive exams). I need to get back to doing that, and so I’m going to try to embrace the act of reading as an end to itself. Maybe I’ll even try one of those “book-a-week” deals.
3. Read Differently. Despite my broad interest in digital media and digital history and archaeology, I usually read my books on paper. As I tell my friends, it’s like driving my Ford F150. I just love the feeling of driving a truck. I love the smell of wet dog, dirt, spilled coffee. I rolling through town at 5-10 mph below the speed limit with my yellow dog (and soon, my puppy). I know that in many ways trucks are obsolete dinosaurs, but I just love driving mine. I recognize that paper books are similar to big trucks: impractical, emotional, and moving invariably toward a kind of practical obsolescence. Who wants to carry three months worth of books overseas? Who has the patience to wait for a new book to arrive when an instant download is a click or two away? Who has the space to store papers books and the time to organize them? I know some people do have the passion for paper, but like my truck, it’s largely irrational and typically a luxury for folks who don’t read for a living.
This isn’t to say that trucks don’t have certain value. Last night a storm brought down several large branches in my yard, and it’ll be nice to just chuck them in the back of my truck and drive to the green waste disposal bins.
This summer I tried to read an academic book on my Kindle. The reading part was fine, but I found myself myself struggling to navigate backward and forward in the book. The probably wasn’t the intuitive controls on the Kindle or even the bookmarking function which worked well. The issue was that I tend to be a (to paraphrase my undergraduates) a very “visual reader.” I tend to remember the structure of pages: the paragraph breaks, subheadings, and even the location of passages on either odd or even pages. The Kindle removes those kind of visual cues from my memory and when I change the font size or jump around in the book, the pages repaginate making it hard for me to remember just where I read that passages that I didn’t highlight when I read it, but want to highlight later.
In pdf versions of books, the page structure remains largely intact even if visual cues like the binding are absent. As a result, I tend to remember the location of key passages and, invariably, content of the book better.