do academic writers love reading?

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.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Jane Smiley, miley, reading and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to do academic writers love reading?

  1. wanderwolf says:

    I love reading! And I know that I could not write the way I do without reading… it’s the best way to develop my writing.
    I’ve learned a few ways to fit in my reading: when I’m waiting for class to start, when I’m commuting, in the morning on the loo, while I’m waiting for noodles to boil. It’s not impossible. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  2. Your post has prompted me to reflect on my own reading and how this has perhaps changed over the years. As a child and young adult I read a lot and widely. Not only fiction but history and politics and art. It was a kind of playful reading but playful in the sense of serious gaming. I could almost feel new neral pathways forming in my brain and body. I was being made new. And when I am engrossed in reading, including academic tects, my writing comes easier, which is to say my thinking becomes easier. But in truth my reading habit in general has declined or perhaps suffered. I ‘read’ so much each day that to return to text outside of work is hard sometimes. I miss the kind of reading I used to do. But there has been a more recent shift in my reading as I have entered, gingerly, a more digital mode of scholarship. Its not the technology that lifts me but the ideas and the thinkers. So I am engaged in a kind of snowstorm of reading and writing via blogs and twitter. I have read as many articles and certainly more books because of this digital space than I have for a long time. There is a really interesting synergetic relationship between an abundance of shortwr more immediate text and the longer form. And because this digital practice also rewuires writing that too comes easier. I hadn’t realised this till now.


  3. I love this piece. I read voraciously as a child/teenager, I know it helped me develop my own writing ability and all the things mentioned. Whilst undertaking my PhD, I spent a lot of time sacrificing my ‘reading for pleasure’ in order to keep up the reading that I had to struggle my way through. I felt guilty for reading a newspaper, and yet I read newspapers to take a break from research. After struggling through these academic texts, I began to realise how something I’d struggled with previously now became a pleasure to read, as the ideas became more familiar and accessible. Yet I could never quite work out anything to do, when taking a break from ‘work’, that didn’t also involve reading!
    After completing my PhD I began to rediscover the joy of reading fiction, and the fiction I was reading made more sense because of the ideas and knowledge picked up through my PhD apprenticeship to deep and complex ideas. And yes Pat, I joined a book club and I love it. I love the word ‘devour’ for the action of reading – plus thinking, reflecting, connecting, considering, enjoying – filling ourselves up, satiating ourselves with the joy and the rewards of just a little bit of effort.


  4. Justine says:

    I’ve found your blog via Twitter, Pat. I’m enjoying the flow of words! I’ve been a total bookworm since childhood, and I love to write. I’ve taken some time away from work for family reasons; not having to answer all those emails, not stressing about preparing lectures, is giving me mental space I haven’t had in years. Such luxury! Perhaps I’ll finally publish something.


  5. Pingback: Link Round-Up: Searching, Reading, Referencing - How To Do A Literature Review

  6. Pingback: Not enough time for reading in academia: can we measure it? – A librarian abroad

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