I 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.