Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Dirty Secret, or Ideal vs. Reality

Perhaps it's not so much of a "dirty secret" as it is simply the thing I find to be the greatest letdown in academia.

It's the fact that academia is not the paradise for book-lovers that I had long imagined it to be. Well, in one way, it kind of is. I certainly get to collect and use lots of books. But I am hesitant to say that I read them, and here is why.

The career of a doctoral student is not one that encourages deep and sustained reading. Rather, one has to develop the skill of reading strategically -- of reading for the main ideas or arguments in a book, instead of reading word for word. What this comes out to, in practice, is...skimming. Lots of skimming, reading the initial and concluding sentences or paragraphs of chapters, but skipping large chunks of text more often than not. You are on a quest to discover the author's main argument and to be able to explain how he or she structures and supports that argument, nothing more nor less.

If you cringe at the thought, then you know how I feel. My idea of skimming a book is to skip the Introduction. If I can't honestly claim to have read a book cover to cover, then I don't feel I can say with integrity that I have "read" it. But there isn't room for that kind of pride in the life of a doctoral student. Because, realistically, you don't have time to read books that way. Not when each of your three professors has assigned a 300-page book to be read by next week. Then, your goal becomes, not to read the entire book, but to read enough, and well enough, that you can say something intelligent about it in the ensuing seminar discussion. Chances are, you are not going to curl up with your books and savor them in leisurely fashion.

This has been a very hard lesson for me to learn, one that I haven't yet mastered. I still take the approach to my studies that I can curl up with a patristic monograph in much the same way that I could a good classic novel. Now, occasionally, I can do something approximating that. One of my Early Church professors, for instance, tends to assign a handful of documents for us to analyze closely rather than assigning a book per week. Then, I actually stand a chance of doing some close, careful ruminating.

But, to be realistic, that is a luxury I'll rarely have until I have blown through my remaining seminars and skidded into the dissertation phase of things. And even then, when I excitedly lug dozens of volumes (of my choosing!) home from the library, I know that only a few of those will likely be read word for word, cover to cover.

So the next time you picture me, your nerdy academic relative or friend, dreamily making her way through stacks of dusty old books, remember that the reality is probably messier and more haphazard than that. And if you see upwards of 30 books teetering around my desk, bed, or cubicle, do not be intimidated and assume I have actually read them all. I can assure you: I haven't.

I'm sure you feel just horribly disillusioned. :-) I'm kidding...though, honestly, I am still emerging from a degree of disillusionment myself. It's one more reminder that this is a job, a set of skills to be mastered, and not simply a haven for a book-lover who'd much prefer to read books slowly, at her own pace and to her heart's content.


  1. Hey Sarah! Thanks for posting on this topic. I understand the frustration. However, I think we can say with pride that we HAVE "read" them. I've been looked down upon (by those who have more time than I and are outside of grad school) for stripping books, and being on the other side of that hurts. We understand a book in context of other books, other arguments, and whole swaths of historiography and primary sources. That's more than what people with more time on their hands for one book can say. We're up to date and read fast to stay there--those who criticize this form of reading, and yes, it is reading, are often not.

  2. LOL You can look at the piles of my (not a grad student, but a stay at home "mum") books (on my nightstand, next to my rocking chair, on my couch), and I assure you that I have not read them either! :) Skimming will have to do for both of us at this time I guess!