reading tips for academic books

What do you do when you have 5 days in a row "off" from your job? If your job is reading, you take that time to read...other...stuff. One thing I've learned in the last couple years is that reading an entire academic book is poor time management. If I read every line on every page of every book I've been assigned--let alone the ones that I need to read for background knowledge or should read because I might need that information for a different project someday--well Mister, I'd not have a family, any time to listen to music, friends, a blog, or sanity (which I had a loose hold on to begin with) any longer. So what'cha gotta do is: (1) Read the reviews. These essentially serve the same purpose with academics as Cliff's Notes do with lazy high schoolers. (2) Read the introduction. Most academics realize you'll not read their whole book, so they pack 90% of the information about the book up front. (3) Read the table of contents. You can amaze your friends and your professors if you just say something like, "I found it interesting that they divide the book up into only 3 sections; I would have thought a fourth section covering _(insert something that interests you here)_ would have bolstered/challenged/refuted/altered their analysis" or "On page ___, the author delves into _(title of chapter)_; but only ____ pages later, the author has incorporated material from the wildly divergent area of _(title of another chapter)_. How do we account for this rapid transition?" Sometimes people (mainly my wife) question the overall utility of assigning many hundreds of pages of reading in a given week when we clearly will not be able to read that much. Their line of reasoning goes like this: "Wouldn't it make more sense to read less and actually attempt to understand it rather than whipping through book after book, article after article, and barely grasping any of it thoroughly?" Ah, but that misunderstands the point of professional academia! The point is not to have a deeply grounded understanding of and appreciation for a small body of revered texts that purport to tell the truth of a given situation. In academia, Truth is itself contested--but not because everyone is a relativist. On the contrary, most academics believe they corner the market on the One Truth in their area of study. Truth is contested because there's too damn much to know about any given topic to know it exhaustively. The most you can do is to offer a nuanced take on a particular position on a particular topic within a circumscribed subfield within a discipline. The actual point of professional academia is to generate fresh, original, new information about something--that generally speaking no one cares too much about. Books about topics we do care about are ultimately better selling. But, because popular books are more open for criticism, no one uses fresh, original, new information in any of those. Instead, we regurgitate ideas from ten or fifty or five hundred years ago--ideas that often were completely discredited before we were born. So what we learn to do is to sew together a patchwork of thousands of ideas--to which we hope to add a single stitch or two. And when--probably late in our careers before we've retired but well after we can occupationally adapt to it--the entire patchwork is set aflame by entirely new ways of thinking, we write up our magnum opus with our novel contributions highlighted and defended in the heart of the text. This is the part of the book that no one reads because they're trying so hard to get through all the book reviews, introductions, and tables of contents.


Anonymous Ray Grieselhuber said...

What a great post - thanks for reassuring me that you guys don't actually somehow have more time to read than the rest of us.

When you say reviews, what are you talking about? Academic reviews? Do they really sum up the work so neatly? I always thought they were a response to the books they reviewed.

10/19/2005 4:43 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

now if only we could get academia to acknowledge this truth.

10/19/2005 10:58 AM  
Blogger e said...

ray--if by "more time to read" you mean more than the 40 hour work week, academics do have "more". By which I mean that I have to spend at least 20 more hours than that a week to keep up. But not all of that time is actually reading. Much of it is attempting to sort through all the chaff to get to the actually valuable stuff. By reviews, I mean those precious keys to the kingdom--the book reviews posted in academic journals. Though a few reviews are done by experts in particular fields that have to deal seriously with the books, many it seems to me are simply summaries done by junior faculty that need more padding for their resume. Without much to add to the book under consideration, they actually do a great job of giving you the bite sized contribution that the book makes to the field. in this way, academic reviews can be much more valuable than the books themselves.

jnf--i think there are academics that acknowledge this. But they don't stay in academia very long....

10/20/2005 8:30 PM  

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