Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ars longa, legere brevis*

With a couple of weeks of breathing room between deadlines, I've decided to turn my energies to the stack of academic books I purchased at conferences over the past year. They're all in my subfield, but none is urgently related to anything I'm working on, so this has the benefit of feeling both virtuous (hey, I'm working! This is totally work!) and a bit decadent (I'm reading for fun! I don't have to read any of this!). So far I've finished two of your basic 200-page monographs and started a third, and I'm partway through a 600-page brick of a book, which I decided to tackle a chapter a day. It's been lovely. Even more lovely is that many of these books are by friends or friendly acquaintances.

But the fact that I know some of these authors and that I just published my own book has made me reflect uncomfortably on how I read. As I've mentioned before, a lot of my scholarly reading these days gets done in a search-and-destroy, slash-and-burn kind of way: I power through a book in a day or two, extracting the gist and the ideas most useful for my own work, skimming the chapters on less-relevant topics, and then moving on to the next one. It's like bolting a meal rather than savoring it: it gets the job done, energy- and nutrition-wise, but it doesn't do the food or the cook justice.

That's not quite how I'm reading these books--there's no point in rushing through books I don't urgently need to read in the first place--but it would be incorrect to say that I'm reading them as slowly or as carefully as they deserve. I'm reading them moderately briskly, with time to linger over cool things here and there, but with the expectation that I'll be coming back to the best ones in the future and don't need to digest everything now.

That's true enough; a good book is a long-term resource, which is why I buy so many. But the fact that I spent ten years writing my own 200-page monograph nags at me when I buzz through someone else's over just a day or two. If if I needed anything to make me feel even more keenly the triviality, the disposabilty of my own work, it's how speedily I read someone else's.

* I know! The bad Latin, it burns.


Susan said...

Oh, yes. I am strategic about my reading, often getting enough of a sense of the argument to know when I need to return to the book.

On the other hand, you wouldn't want to write a book that took people ten years to read. I think two days on a book is a lot - I usually do a day or so, but rarely in one fell swoop. (I'm not sure how I characterize the reading I do while traveling, or where there are distractions ...)

Flavia said...


Well yes, that's certainly true!

It's just funny, and uneasy-making, the disproportion between production time and consumption time.

The book that I'm reading one chapter a day feels like the right speed, though I usually prefer to get through things in one fell swoop. But it's also dense and chewy, so I think a chapter a day is literally all I could manage.

Historiann said...

A senior scholar in my field once told me that there are two kinds of scholars: those who read books and those who write them. The lesson was of course that if you want to be the latter, you need to be ruthless in your consumption of other people's scholarship. You have to see it as instrumental, and you have to keep your end goal in mind.

I think that's pretty great advice! I think that reading ANYTHING at ANY SPEED in someone else's book is what they'd prefer, rather than holding yourself to some unrealistic standard as a reader.

Give yourself a break. It's Memorial Day today, & so it's officially summer! Break out the white shoes and the G&Ts! Enjoy.

Flavia said...


I. . . guess? As a literature scholar, I think that's a pretty awful and depressing maxim!

But it's true that most scholarly works aren't the savor-it, read-for-pleasure type. And more's the pity.