can you do too much reading?

I’ve just reviewed four papers. Because the authors didn’t know their field(s) well enough, they were unable to convince me that their paper made a contribution to the journal conversation. All of the papers suffered, in my view, from their authors not having done enough reading.

But while it is easy to see who someone hasn’t read enough, it’s much harder to draw a line and say when enough is enough. What counts as ‘enough’ reading? And can you simply read too much? And can you read too much at the start of your PhD?

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In my writing workshops and courses I am often told about how bad a lot of early reading makes people feel… for instance…

  • Inadequate – engagement with other people’s work can leave the beginning researcher feeling depowered and depressed, unsure if they will ever be able to meet the same eloquent standards. Or…
  • Vaguely resentful –  too much immersion in dense and stodgy texts numbs the beginning researcher to the possibility that academic writing can be anything other than dire.

Conversation with peers and with supervisors is important if reading leaves you feeling like this. IMHO, reading ought to be interesting most of the time, if not actually pleasurable. But this doesn’t really answer the ‘enough’ question. Even if you feel good about the reading, can you actually overdo it?

Not everyone agrees that researchers should automatically do intensive and extensive reading at the start of a project. The sociologist Robert Merton argued that there was a tension between erudition and originality. It might be possible, he suggested, that originality and creativity could be diminished if a researcher was ‘infected’ by other people’s thinking. Following Merton’s line of reasoning might lead us to think that reading a lot at the start of a research project is counter-productive. We might assume that reading prevents us from sorting out our own ideas. Advocates of this line of thought might prefer then a kind of initial intellectual celibacy,  a period when the researcher works solely on their own assumptions and prior knowledge in order to sort out their own position. Then, and only then, do they take on the ideas and work of others.

Others – for example Harry Wolcott, who often said he’d rather write than read  – do hold that reading should come later in a research project. Engage with the literatures when you have concrete data you are trying to make sense of, they say. That’s the point at which you are trying to work out which line of analysis and argument to take. The point where you need to say whether you are adding to, contradicting, talking back to, finding problems with or finessing the work that others have already done. The point the authors of the papers I was reviewing seem to have skipped.

But it now seems axiomatic that doctoral researchers start by reading. It is interesting that institutions generally expect doctoral researchers to produce a well-worked out proposal for formal approval before they go on to field work. The proposal is largely a review of literatures and a research design and plan. (This proposal  process is as much about risk management as it is anything else – the proposal approval process is meant to identify those people who will struggle to complete a doctorate. How well this works is a question that I don’t want to canvass here). So these kinds of institutional requirements assume that reading a lot before beginning the research is an unproblematically good thing, rather than something about which there has been, even if there isn’t now, some debate.

It may well be that institutions and we supervisors need to do more about addressing the potential down-sides of reading a lot. Perhaps we need to stress rather more the importance of working – at the same time as reading – on progressing your own thinking about the actual research. Maybe we should really hammer home that the reading is for good reasons, not simply because it’s expected.

I guess it’s clear that I opt for early reading, rather than taking the non-reading position. However, I do think that there are risks attached to reading too much. There’s a point at which reading becomes an end in itself. An endless pursuit of something more, something   indefinable, a magic bullet leading to a new line of thinking. There is certainly a point at which doctoral researchers – indeed any of us – need to step away from the desk and get on with our own thinking.

Reading ought not to contaminate our thinking, but rather enhance it. Writing about what we are reading, as we are reading it, and writing about our reading in relation to our project, can go a long way to helping us sort out our own ideas, bouncing off the texts in our field. The literatures do have things to offer, providing we can deal with feelings of being inadequate, and don’t fall capture to the notion that all the texts are the gold standard of and for academic communication. Finding ideas for topics, refining our project, locating tools that we can use in our own research and locating prior work that we can build on – these are all in our reading. And these kinds of ‘tools’ are not only helpful in early doctoral work, but at the start of any research project.

But none of this ought to be at the expense of developing our own ideas and our project. If the reading is getting in the way, rather than assisting, or if it’s substituting for our own thinking, then maybe this is the enough already.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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9 Responses to can you do too much reading?

  1. Thank you, Pat – Your post reminded me of Kant’s advice in the ‘Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics’ (http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/kant1783.pdf), where he advises philosophers in the Introduction to not read what has come before so that they can tackle old problems afresh:

    “ […] nothing can be said now that the historians won’t think has been said already! And it is safe to predict that they’ll think the same about anything said in the future; human understanding has busied itself for centuries with countless topics in many ways, so it is to be expected that every new idea will resemble something that has been said in the past.

    If you think that metaphysics is worth studying, my aim is to convince you of the following:

    It is absolutely necessary that you stop your work for a while, regard anything that has been done as not having been done, and face up to the preliminary question of whether such a thing as metaphysics is even possible”.

    Your post is very timely for me and particularly struck a cord when you said that reading can ‘contaminate’ thinking. I have found that it is not so much a question of ‘too much’ reading but an issue of ‘how’ I read: when I mine a text (i.e. read it for information that answers questions that I have), then this is a productive exercise. But when I read to find a ‘magic bullet’, as you say, then, yes, contamination seeps in, it overwhelms you, and – I have also found – it acts as a kind of ‘alibi’ exonerating me from making my own contributions. But then again, it can also be inspiring.

    I think the read-write-research cycle is on a (dis)continuous loop rather than on a linear trajectory: you need to read to have the thoughts in the first place and you need the thoughts in the first place to select and make sense of the reading, and you need to write to process it all, and that IS the research (I think).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jane S says:

      ‘… you need to read to have the thoughts in the first place and you need the thoughts in the first place to select and make sense of the reading, and you need to write to process it all, and that IS the research (I think).’ This is so true, Julia. And it makes me feel very relieved. I was beginning to imagine (and to believe) I was ‘doing it all wrong.’
      🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. mrsbluestocking says:

    This also struck a chord with me. The reading I have done in the latter stages of my PhD has been much more valuable in some ways – for helping me to think through my arguments, for interpreting and making sense of the data and placing it into a wider context and for helping to structure some of my writing. However, this would probably not have been quite so useful if I hadn’t done some of the reading ‘spadework’ at the beginning. I also found that the way I read has changed as I have found my own voice and am more confident in my own research. I guess my basic point is that it is important to read throughout the thesis process but the purpose for doing so changes and being mindful of *why* you are doing the reading is crucial.

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  3. Sometimes I read papers in certain disciplines and find myself almost at the outset predicting at least 5-10 papers that would be cited. Many times I am not far off. It seems like one of the approaches taken by many authors is to ‘get the seminal works in there’… So is this something that you as a reviewer look out for or expect to see? Sometimes it feels like a writer-reviewer-editor game.

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  8. I wrote a post on a similar topic on my blog, and in my opinion reading+thinking+writing+discussing strategy is the most fruitful. Some part of read literature should be processed and then we can with more understanding read the next part. And I think that in my field it is useful to know previous works to be able to defend own arguments. Economics is divided for so many streams, that we talk about the same thing from various perspectives. So it is hard to come into discussion with other researchers without knowledge about your stream.

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