Often, when I run workshops or give presentations about academic writing, I begin by talking about reading. I ask how many people like reading and how many people like literature work. I ask whether workshop participants read outside of the academic work that they do. And I’m always struck by the responses, by the sheer number of people – doctoral researchers in particular – who don’t seem to like reading. They do read, but they don’t want to do any more reading than they have to. Of course, these days reading can be complemented by other media – listening to podcasts and watching youtube clips for example. But at the centre of these media is still the practice of reading.
It strikes me, and I know this is going to sound a bit mean, that being a researcher/scholar and not liking reading is a bit like being a chef who doesn’t like eating, or a carpenter who hates working with wood. Words, language, ideas are the stuff of scholarship. They are what makes our academic world go round. As de Certeau put it, the university is a scriptural economy. If you don’t like reading and working with ideas and then writing so that other people can read your work, then the academic world is going to be a pretty tough and alien place to be.
And there is a connection between reading and writing. Those who are keen readers are more likely to be writers. Well, I might not have proof of that statement, so it could be dismissed as just an educated assertion, but that’s certainly my experience teaching in schools, as well as in universities. There’s a logic to a reading-writing connection of course. People who read a lot have a familiarity with writing, and with multiple authors’ approaches to writing; they are likely to have developed a degree of tacit understanding about the ways in which language and texts are crafted. They appreciate some writers more than others and can generally explain why.
The reading-writing connection is more evidenced at the ‘professional’ level. In interview, a lot of writers talk about their love of reading. Here’s Jane Smiley, who wrote a book about novels and novelists …
When I was researching the nonfiction book I wrote about the novel, I discovered the childhoods of most novelists were similar to mine. Almost all novelists grew up reading voraciously, and many of them come from families in which it’s automatic to tell stories about family characters, Aunt Ruth or whomever, and they are curious and/or observant. I was one of those kids who had to be told to stop asking questions all the time, that’s what novelists do. We gather information, and we form what we learn into a story (p 207).
While academics don’t necessarily form their ideas in the same way as novelists, my educated hunch is that the people who are the most determined academic writers also read – willingly, enthusiastically and a lot. While some of this scholarly reading may not be easy, and most of the writing certainly is not, they don’t believe that reading time is wasted time.
I’d love to do some research looking at the connections between reading and academic writing. The accomplished academic writers that I know all read widely. Most of them don’t just read academic texts, but devour a range of other kinds of writing, including fiction. Many belong to reading groups outside of the academy. They live a kind of life of the mind, much of it through texts of diverse genres and styles.
Productive academic writers don’t see that reading is a tiresome necessity, that it’s drudgery, that it’s to be done only in sufficient quantity to get by. In fact they/we usually treasure the time that they/we do get away from daily duties to dive into a new book.
And that love of reading is why I’m often tempted, when I am told by doctoral or other researchers that reading is something that has to be done in order for the ‘real research’ to take place – as if it’s simply some kind of administrative requirement or an archaic ritual – to respond by suggesting the reluctant academic readers need to take time off to read a lot of good books. Join a book club, I want to say. Go to a writer’s festival. Stock up your e-reader. And do this not for any reason other than to build your love of reading and words, to sink into the play of language, to take the time to listen, in Roland Barthes words, to the ‘rustle’ of the text.