Monday, August 31, 2009

Reading Habits

Someone writing an article on reading asked me a series of questions, a kind of e-interview, and because they were good questions, I thought I'd post the exchange here. Others might take up these same questions on their own sites. I'd be intrigued to hear about others' practices in this regard.

What is your approach to your reading? (For instance: How do you choose the books you will read? Do you make book lists? Are there any resources or people on whom you depend when you are deciding what to read? Do you have specific categories that you try to read from, or are you a more scatter-shot reader? What periodicals do you read?)

Good question. I don't feel like I have much of a system. I think one issue is the fact that I'm constantly trying to make up for the lack of a proper liberal arts education. That, and the fact that I really didn't start reading books until I was 18. My most passionate reading is not professional--the reading I want to do is in the areas of literature and poetry. And I guess I have a kind of implicit "canon" in my head that I've been trying to work through--a tacit canon that I've somehow absorbed through, well, reading! Over the years I've been trying to build a decent library from used bookstores, church rummage sales, etc., and so now I generally try to read in different "locales." For instance, I have a very loose policy of shuttling back and forth between American, British, (though the latter would also include colonial and post-colonial literature, like Salman Rushdie) and French literature (Balzac, Baudelaire, Flaubert)--with some "new" stuff mixed in (i.e., books that have just appeared, that are currently being reviewed). My professional reading is compelled by different sorts of obligations--my research requires that I keep up with certain developments, certain "hot" discussions, etc. Though I confess I find it harder and harder to get excited about this "obligatory" reading. I don't keep up the way I used to. (That might partly stem from the fact that I'm quite an unabashed generalist now, so I don't think of myself first and foremost as a specialist in French phenomenology anymore.)

As for periodicals, I subscribe to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and we have a family subscription to Vanity Fair (which isn't the soft schlock you might think). I read the New York Times and The Guardian online each morning.

Professionally, I am a journal junkie and absolutely love the "Table of Contents Alert" services that are offered by most scholarly journals (and in most cases, offered free, though one needs a subscription to actually read the articles). This service sends the new Tables of Contents for each issue to my inbox. I probably subscribe to 25 of these, across a range of disciplines. It's fabulous.

Do you use any tools to plan or track your reading?

I keep a list of what I've read in the back pages of my Moleskin. I started this because my reading is quite eclectic, and I'd remember something, and try to recall where I'd read it, but because I read so many things at the same time, it was hard to track down. So now I note what I read, and when--though I'm not as careful about this as I should be.
I should note that in addition to reading books and periodicals, I'm an irrepressible sampler. I'm just constantly dipping into books in my library, have books stacked everywhere in the house (the pile beside my bed regularly totters on the edge of toppling), and am not at all averse to just sitting with a different book for a few minutes. So I'm reading in my library all the time.

I also have kept a "What I'm Reading" blog at, but I've not been very faithful with it, largely because I've put too much pressure on myself to make every post an exquisite review, which is unfortunate.

Do you take notes or write in your books?

Yes! When I was in college, I was averse to this, but I've been converted. I underline a lot and make marginal comments. But most importantly, I make the blank back page of the book a personalized "index" of sorts (I think I learned this from my teacher, Jim Olthuis). On those back pages, I highlight themes (with page numbers) that I'll want to come back to, draw connections, make notes to myself, etc. This makes it easier for me to come back to a book later and dive back into it for writing purposes.

How many books do you typically read in a year? idea. From this list I'd guess about 30, but this list doesn't include the books I read for "professional" purposes.

Do you set aside time each day or week to read?

Any 3 minutes not doing something else is time to read! (And yes, this is a point of some marital and parental tension sometimes!) I don't have a dedicated block, except perhaps the end of the day, when my wife and I are very happy to crawl into bed early (around 10:30) and read til about midnight. Fortunately my wife is an avid reader, too, so the TV is off most evenings, and by the time we've dispatched the kids to bed, we're ready to unwind just reading. But I also read whenever I can (I always take a book with me when we're running errands as a family, though I ask permission first). I stopped taking books to kids soccer games because it made me inattentive. But in general, I have a book (or at least a magazine) in my hand.

What technologies do you use to aid your reading? (Audiobooks? Websites? Project Gutenberg? Kindle?)

I guess the Table of Contents Alerts I mentioned would fall under this category. I sometimes listen to audiobooks if I have a long drive somewhere by myself, but that's quite rare. Never touched Kindle and can't imagine I ever will.

What would you tell a college student about approaching their required reading lists?

Look, you won't listen to this, but I've got to say it so you feel guilty later: Your required reading lists are a gift. What I wouldn't give to repeat high school and actually take advantage of being "required" to read Shakespeare or Hemmingway. I know it won't feel like that. So just promise me this: you'll read one book from every required reading list as if you wanted to.

What would you tell a recent graduate about establishing a reading practice?

Keep books in every room of the house. Pile them up on the end table or nightstand or back of the toilet. Have the books there, staring at you, inviting you, wooing you, calling to you, shaming you. Keep bumping into them. Pick them up and look at them. And even if you have a first job, resist signing up for cable and spend the end of each day reading. Then find a friend who loves to read (and, if possible, a spouse) and talk about books.