|Scientia imperii decus et tutamen est|
First, let's interrogate the truth implied in the title question: it is believed that academics DO read lots of books.
Since most undergraduates consider that having read more than a dozen books puts you in the same league as Wittgenstein or Dr Johnson it will not be difficult to impress your friends.
But let's grant that academics do 'read' quite a lot, perhaps more than average. For teachers in the arts and in the social sciences, their books are their primary tools and resources. Text is a living laboratory.
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.
Since 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 several hundred 'new' articles are written on gothic monsters. It is a Frankenstein industry, 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 your work, or that you have been asked to REVIEW.
In fact, it would be more true to say that academics BUY lots of books, rather than reading them, in the strict sense of a cover-to-cover engagement.
They also BORROW lots of books (as you will recognise if you have any academic friends visiting...)
The piles of academic books then 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 ...
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 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.
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)
(Quibble Academic, 2013)
© Dr Ian McCormick. But please do contact me if you want to use this article as a guest post on your blog. With attribution offered I seldom refuse!