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Saturday, 10 December 2016

Reading To Some Purpose - Advice to a Young Academic

I sometimes imagine some post-mortem pie chart which shows how I used the hours of my life. 

Sleeping will provide the biggest slice, of course. Next might come eating but I am pretty sure that in my case it will be substantially beaten by reading. I began reading a lot when I was about eleven and, since mine was a home without books, they came at first from public libraries. In the sixth form, I began buying my own books. Newly arrived at university, my rather scary Economics tutor, the late John Corina, snapped at me, “Book a day, Pateman! Book a day!” thus setting a reading target which I often fulfilled then and, fifty years later, sometime still do. And there aren’t many books you can read in under six or seven hours, not if you read them as I always do, cover to cover. I very rarely skim a book. So Book a Day is almost a day’s work a day.

Asked that standard question about how – given a second chance - you would live your life differently, I would have to reply that I would think more about why I was using my time reading the book in my hand. Looking back, I have read far too many books for no obvious purpose, not even just for pleasure. Indeed, it would have better to have read more books for pleasure and fewer for the rather obscure purposes of self-improvement, or because the author was famous, or because it was sent to me for review, and so on through a long list.

I would certainly have written more academic papers – books, even - if instead of listening to that “Book a day!” injunction, I had told myself to read all and only that necessary to write the next paper which might then become a chapter of the next book. If any young academic ever asked my advice (they don’t), I would have to say, Always read with some purpose and the more narrowly-defined, the better.

I can see that there is a case against that view (Well, I would, wouldn’t I?). If you stumble around as a typical “general reader” (which is how I classify myself), you will chance upon things and, if you persist long enough – like decades - some things will link up and allow you some new insight denied to the researcher who sticks studiously to the literature “in their field”. That is surely true. 

Recently, I have been turning some old journal articles in Pragmatics into a book – optical scanning plus copy and paste makes it a cakewalk. I took the decision to make a consolidated Bibliography for everything rather than leave references at the end of each chapter. And when I checked through the fourteen pages which resulted, I was very impressed. Whatever the quality of the chapters - probably mixed - the Bibliography is in a league of its own. And (with two or three exceptions) I have read everything on it. But no one is going to buy my book to read my Bibliography, even though I can’t help feeling it deserves a prize for effort.

What I now see in that Bibliography is the disproportion between the effort expended and the result. Many of those things read contributed no more than a sentence in a footnote and, frankly, a sentence in a footnote is not worth several hours’ work, not unless the result is a very highly polished pearl of a sentence. But if it’s that, it shouldn’t be in a footnote in the first place and it shouldn’t be a sentence. Academics nowadays are measured for their output of orange juice, and you will be out of a job if you only produce concentrated orange juice.

I find it hard to break with old habits. Not so long ago, I ordered a dozen books off Amazon, some deliciously obscure. One of them, I knew in advance, might contribute one sentence to something I was working on. I was going to read four hundred pages on Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth Century Hasidic Thought to squeeze out that one sentence. I just had to make a pearl of it. But, for once, reason won out and after making myself skim the book I decided not to try for that one sentence.

In truth, I know there are short-cuts. Take my advice. Use them.

The Times Higher invites emailed submissions of short Opinion pieces. I sent this in a few months ago, but got no reply, so here it is on my Blog

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