tumblr_ncgkryMwuc1s1zlzoo1_500I miss reading.

That may sound like an odd thing for an academic to say.  After all, I read all the time.  Within the past few weeks I have read 10 2000-word essays, two articles for discussion in a reading group, a draft of a colleague’s article, a draft of an other colleague’s grant proposal, three pieces of work written by postgraduate students, bits and pieces of roughly two dozen books that I am using to write a book chapter, half of a review book plus an unnumbered number of articles, blog posts, twitter conversations, emails and other forms of writing that historians of the future may class as ‘ephemera’.  Next week I will read over a dozen research proposals, another piece of postgraduate writing, some more of the review book and yet more articles, blog posts, twitter conversations and emails.

My job is based on reading and reading occupies a huge portion of my time. So what do I mean when I say I miss reading?

What I really mean, of course, is that I miss reading uncritically.  Everything I read for work requires me at some level to think about it, evaluate the ideas it contains and make judgements based on those evaluations.  Some judgements are superficial or easily made. Deciding whether or not to attend the range of seminars that emails regularly invite me to falls into this category.  Others are more time and energy consuming.  Fully grasping the way a student has grappled with complex ideas of masculine hegemony or the sophisticated arguments of 250-page academic monograph requires attention and focus.  The former is a necessary aspect of daily life, the management of communication.  The latter can be hugely satisfying, reflecting achievements in communicating and comprehending complex ideas.  But both are forms of reading as work, reading in which the self is always present, bringing to bear critical faculties on the text.

What I miss, what I really miss is the sort of reading that entails the loss of self within the story, where the act of reading is enough, where judgement is not necessarily suspended but not the ultimate definition of the interaction between reader and text.  I miss reading for pleasure, a loss to the multiple demands on my time that I become ever more acutely aware of as my six-year-old son makes the transition from reading as learning to reading for self-satisfaction.  Watching him make that journey is wonderfully exciting, opening up new worlds of books that I can offer him to lose himself in.  But it is also a poignant reminder of how little time I spend doing such losing myself. There are books on my ‘to read’ shelf that have been there since he was born – and the pile still grows, a testament to the power of hope (and good intentions) over experience.  I will read these book someday, I know I will.

On the positive side, not only does my son’s growing discovery of the pleasures of reading for pleasure provide me with greater opportunities to read myself (although he still loves being read to, a joy I hope he never loses, as I have never done), but the Christmas holidays are nearly upon us, with their eternal promise of time to read.  The past few years have been dominated by grant deadlines which have eaten in to any time not already committed to festive preparations and family celebrations.  But this year I am determined to carve out some time to finish the novel I haven’t looked at since September, and maybe even one or two others besides. Because if I am to retain the ability to read critically, as I must do, I need allow myself the space read uncritically as well, to lose myself in the written word as a way of finding myself again.


Looking Ahead

Happy New Year! I hope you have all had very merry and happy holiday seasons. Mine was lovely, marred only by sickness which struck on Boxing Day and has affected one or other member of my household ever since. Still, sore throats notwithstanding, we KBO.

Today is my first back at work since the holidays, although given the silence in the corridors, most of my colleagues have decided that this half a week is a bit pointless and have sensibly stayed away. With only one day in the office, I have mainly been concentrating on clearing my desk in preparation for the new year and, having almost succeeded (there is one proposal still to draft that is proving so intractable that I think yet another cup of tea will be needed to crack it), I thought this would a good opportunity to take a look ahead at what 2013 has to offer.

Firstly we have a great line-up of speakers for the Legacies of War seminar series. Final confirmation of titles is pending (and the full list will be posted in a week or so), but Adrian Gregory and Santanu Das have both agreed to speak, on ‘Did God Survive the Somme’ (!) and on ‘India, Empire and the First World War’. Both should be fascinating.

Before then I will be heading off to London, to the Wellcome Library where I will be on the hunt for memories of and about medical orderlies. Having had my proposal on the experiences of orderlies accepted for the Social History Society’s annual conference in March (see here for details), I am now looking for material to support the conclusions I have been drawing from reading Ward Muir’s Observations of an Orderly.  There is at least one orderly memoir at the Wellcome, plus a long list of potential manuscript sources, so it will be a busy.  I am also hoping to attend the IHR conference on open access, The Finch Report, open access and the historical community while I am there (there is a waiting list).

Also coming up is a meeting at the Imperial War Museum North for academics across the North of England to discuss plans for the centenary commemorations and I will be taking the opportunity to go round the ‘Saving Lives’ exhibition while I am there.

There are also a couple of long term plans that are starting to take shape – workshop for the autumn on the history of medicine and warfare, a journal special issue that I have been putting together for years now that hopefully will find a suitable home this year, plans for a primary school class on First World War medicine that may or may not include an accurate reproduction of a stretcher and work with some of the All Our Stories projects relating to Leeds hospitals during the war that have received funding.

And in the interim there will be reading and writing – lots of both.  There is the article on voluntary medical services and their relation to the military that I have been trying to write for a couple of months now, and the stack of books on the Territorial Army sitting seductively on my desk which will, hopefully, inform it.  There is the aforementioned conference paper on medical orderlies and the related research.  There is a beautiful (literally – the cover image is gorgeous) book from Ashgate to review.  And there is the ever-growing reading list, not including the ten books sitting disconsolate on my ‘to read’ shelf awaiting my attention.

So all in all it looks as if this will be a very busy and hopefully productive year in the annals of Arms and the Medical Man.  I will, of course, keep you updated as I go along.  I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I think I will.