With everything done but the marking in my class, I can now look ahead to July and August and ask myself what any self-respecting English professor inevitably asks: What will I be reading?
Actually, I recently spent a friendly evening with several other English professors and the question they asked me was “How do you ever find time for all that reading?”–which is an interesting question, when you think about it. It does rather imply that I’m reading when I should be doing something else, or at least I’m reading instead of doing something else, namely, whatever it is that they are doing. Or, to refine that insinuation somewhat, it implies that my reading isn’t the same as their reading. Perhaps what they really mean is “How do you ever find time to read so much for fun?” or “to read things that aren’t obviously for your research.” Or maybe it just means “You must be neglecting your garden/family/knitting/TV watching/sleep” (to which the responses are, in order, yes (but my husband does a great job of it) / no, I’m pretty sure not / yes, definitely, and my quilting too / yes, pretty certainly, but after you have children you come too regard sleep as a rare luxury anyway). Perhaps they just meant it as a compliment (“Wow, you read a lot–good for you!”), or perhaps they suspect me of speed-reading! Probably, really, they didn’t mean much by it at all, and the fact that it has obviously made me feel defensive means that I have projected my own anxieties about how I use my time onto them–which I shouldn’t do to my friends!
Still, they got me thinking, not for the first time, about the relationship of my “leisure” or non-required reading to my work and professional life. It’s true that I never, ever pick up a book of academic literary criticism anymore to read just out of interest. Reading of that sort is strictly occasional for me now, meaning that I do it only when the occasion demands–when I’m either studying up on something I’m going to teach for the first time, or the first time in a while, or working on a specific research project. But I don’t think the other reading I do is strictly irrelevant. For instance, I’ve ended up teaching as well as developing research projects based on books I initially read initially “only” for my own interest. Without defining relevance quite so narrowly, too, it just seems right that someone whose job it is to talk to students about literature and perhaps even to put it into some meaningful relationship with their own lives should be an active, curious reader including of some currents in contemporary writing. I make a big deal in my classes about the texts we are reading, which come in such uniform and sanitized packages (no offense, OUP, Penguin, Norton, or Broadview-they’re beautiful and extremely useful editions!), but which were never intended for quite that kind of safe consumption–writers write to stir things up, whether social, political, aesthetic, sensual, or theoretical things. Reading widely, if miscellaneously, helps me sustain an interest in literature as that kind of living and purposeful venture, and I think that reading enhances–it certainly motivates–my classroom time as well as (of course) my own life. The diffusion of my reading attention, though, has in recent years made me less and less patient with the kind of deep, burrowing reading that academic research requires. I’m more and more aware of what I haven’t read, despite all that I have read, and I feel frustrated that the kind of reading I have done (still do) in deliberate pursuit of professional goals (scholarly articles and books) has been at the expense of the kind of broad reading experience that would give me the knowledge and confidence to write a different kind of criticism. And yet, I do have professional responsibilities, and even, maybe, a lingering interest in getting that last promotion, so for those reasons I need to remain a disciplined reader; and I do learn from and sometimes even enjoy the ‘work’ reading I do.
So, with these different priorities (reading deeply or reading widely), what will I be reading this summer?
One possibility that I feel, somewhat sadly, is slipping away from me is The Tale of Genji. When I learned of the summer project being co-hosted by Open Letters Monthly and the Quarterly Conversation, it was just before the beginning of my class, and at this point I’m about 200 pages behind. Though I am enthusiastic about the project in principle, and have been keeping an eye on the interesting and lively posts at its blog site, I fear I can’t catch up and keep up now without abandoning the other books I already had marked as summer prospects. Chief among these is War and Peace, which I’ve been yearning after for some time–so you see why I find adding Genji a difficult prospect. But I do have it from the library, and I have made a start on it, so we’ll see how that goes. I’m also just at the beginning of Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate, as a further effort in the Scottish Literature Reading Challenge, and I’m finding it sharp and amusing so far, making it an attractive prospect to stick with it and finish it. I also need to read Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, as one of my MA students is writing a chapter on it; so far, it’s not nearly as alluring a read as The Perpetual Curate (leading me to sympathize with James Wood’s remark that “when Woolf fails it is generally when she is being Victorian”). Still, duty calls! Rereads are also in my future, as I try to, at last, get my Ahdaf Soueif paper into form for submission to a peer-reviewed journal; I’ve been thinking of expanding it from In the Eye of the Sun to include comparative analysis of The Map of Love. On my TBR pile I also have Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, William Volmann’s Europe Central, A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book, Azar Nafisi’s Things I Have Been Silent About, Hilary Mantel’s The Giant O’Brian, and Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood–tempting, all! Plus I haven’t finished the Hermione Lee biography of Woolf, and I recently picked up several second-hand copies of Woolf’s diaries and letters, which at the very least I would like to spend some concentrated time browsing in. Finally, I am still thinking about the whole ‘books of my life’ idea that came to me towards the end of my recent rant about getting away from metacriticism and on with finding my own critical voice, and the book I would most like to write about, if I can figure out how, is Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field, so I will be reading that again, along with Gaudy Night, another of my top picks for that category.
Hmm. I still haven’t mentioned any scholarly books. I’m sure there will be some! But I doubt I’ll learn more, or even as much, from any of them as I’ll learn from finishing War and Peace.