Thursday, November 5, 2009

How I Use Scarce Reading Time

One of the great myths about academic life is that professors have time to devote to reading and quiet contemplation. Some have more time than others for such pursuits, but in my experience, "reading time" is mostly "skimming" time.

I have made it a habit to devote at least an hour before bed each evening to real reading of works in which I have special interest, but which usually are not related (at least not directly) to anything I'm currently writing or teaching. These are mostly novels, histories, and biographies. Aside from that precious hour or so, which I guard pretty jealously, time for real reading is quite scarce, particularly when I'm working on a writing project, which is pretty much all of the time. Strange at it may sound to nonacademics, writing and reading are mutually exclusive activities. Virtually all of the "reading" I do that is associated with writing projects or teaching falls squarely into the category of "skimming." And I collect many papers that, however much they might interest me, I simply cannot find the time even to skim.

At the beginning of each summer, as I conduct my ritual organizing of home and school offices, I sift through all of the unread papers gathered on shelves or in vertical stacks on the floor, and decide which to keep in the hope of reading during the next year. The majority of papers do not make that cut. They wind up in the recycling bin. They become a measure of my inevitable ignorance.

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