Obviously, reading is intimately connected with research. The process of creating a dissertation necessitates forging a relationship with researchers who’ve trod on the same ground before, years before, in other directions, and with different guiding principles. Understanding the conversation, through reading the work of the participants, is essential to contributing to that conversation.
That’s not what this is about.
This is about reading for pleasure. For fun. Reading things that aren’t about the dissertation topic, or necessarily academic in nature at all. I’ve been terrible about this sort of reading for quite a while, having read only Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy in the past five years. That’s only six books that aren’t part of my research or graduate classes.
I could say that I’ve been so focused on dissertating that I’ve neglected the book part of my life. But I’ve spent hours watching TV and movies and playing Zelda games, when I could’ve spent them reading. I’ve been culturally engaged, just not as broadly applied as I’d like.
My only New Year’s Resolution has been rectifying this situation. I intend to read 15 or so books during 2015, by authors from a variety of backgrounds. Or, since a number is difficult to achieve in a resolution, I want to always be in the process of reading a book that’s not part of my research. If that means that I only get through Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, that’s okay, since it’s a 750ish page book. But I’m already halfway through that one, so I think I’ll finish it and many others this year.
Why is this so important to me? I think that reading outside of my research will help my research and improve my contributions to academia.
Force a break from research. So many research epiphanies strike in the shower, or when trying to fall asleep. It’s the not-thinking about the project that allows our work to breathe, breaking free from being stifled by the structure we impose on it when actively writing. Reading something different helps us stop thinking about the research for ten minutes, allowing other areas to get some cognitive exercise.
Connect to the outside world. Other disciplines exist in the academic world–that much academics understand. But still, reading outside a discipline keeps academics looking at the interior walls of the ivory tower. Reading other works, fiction and non-fiction alike, creates an awareness of culture outside of academia. And this awareness of other people makes academics more human.
Talk about something else. Nobody wants to hear about museum taxidermy all the time. Well, I suppose there’s a small cadre of people who would enjoy such talks, but even I’m not one of them. I want to talk about something else, and I’m sure that other people, including my family, want to hear about something else. Reading provides that relational connection and creates points of common interest both interdepartmentally and with those who work outside academia.
Engage with different perspectives. Reading is a way to explore how others view the world. It’s easy entry into a conversation with people other than yourself. And to this point, it’s deeply rewarding. By engaging with different perspectives, with different backgrounds, with different lives, we develop empathy toward others. This empathy makes us better researchers and better teachers, and better ambassadors for our research and our discipline.
So, what am I doing this year? Reading a lot. Well, maybe not a lot, but for 10 minutes or so every day.
My focus this year will be on authors who aren’t white, or who aren’t male, or for whom English is not the first language, getting outside of my own experience and privileges. There’s a lot on the list that I should’ve read a long time ago, or as soon as it came out. And there are some that are on the list for the sake of expanding my sci-fi literacy. But mostly, it’s a list that I’m very much looking forward to reading through, and that I’m eager to talk with people about.
I’ve used the covers of the books that are on my list in this post, and I welcome recommendations for other books. A lot of this list is unfamiliar material to me, and I’d especially enjoy input suggesting replacement books that might be more representative of an author’s work, subject, or genre.
What’s your list?