What We’re (Really) Talking About When We Talk About “Time to Read”

cassatt the teaRecently I went out for a very pleasant lunch with a group of local Victorianists. One of the topics of discussion was retirement, and particularly how demoralizing it has been for people we know who have given literally decades of their lives to their universities only to be urged to consider retirement before they themselves feel ready for it. Nobody that we know wants to work past the point where they can’t do their job well, but for many professors 60-ish can actually be a peak time for creative productivity. Academic careers start slowly anyway, given the years it takes to earn qualifications, to land a permanent position (for the increasingly small number privileged enough to do so), then to meet the demands for tenure. Women with children, in particular, may have waited a long time to really flex their intellectual muscles: researchers have shown that motherhood has different professional costs for academic women than for men.

For these reasons and more, many academics approaching what used to be the mandatory retirement age have in fact enjoyed only a relatively short phase of being free to do the work they really think is most important, building on their long apprenticeships and painstakingly acquired expertise. By that time they usually also have extensive experience in the many facets of academic self-governance. They are enormously valuable resources for their departments and institutions — and, nowadays, they are unlikely to be replaced. In the circumstances, they should be cherished, not dismissed. It is borderline illegal to push them towards the door, and it is also insulting and discouraging.

quartetAnyway! Retirement is not the main subject of this post (though it’s related to it, in ways I’ll come back to): it’s just the context for how, at our nice lunch, I ended up mentioning Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, which I had discussed with my book club the night before, and in which retirement and its existential discontents is a central theme. No sooner had the words “This reminds me of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, which I just read with my book club” left my lips then, nearly in unison (and I don’t exaggerate), the rest of the table erupted with “I don’t know how you find time to read!”

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me when I’m talking with my colleagues. There are a handful of them who are also “readers,” and with whom, instead of talking time management, I can talk books. What a pleasure that always is! But the “how do you find time?” response is by far the most common one, and the tone is always a mixture of incredulity and envy, often with just a hint of judgment, as if I’m doing something pleasurably illicit, something just a bit daring and also a bit suspect.

This is not necessarily what you’d expect. Don’t English professors read for a living, after all? Didn’t they become English professors because at some point they were bookworms? Isn’t reading what we do? And of course the answer is yes — English professors read incessantly: literary works they have assigned or are considering for classes, scholarly books and articles for class preparation and for research, student writing from introductory-level papers to graduate theses, manuscripts for peer review, their own writing. When my colleagues exclaim over my mysterious ability to find time to read, they clearly don’t mean that kind of reading: they mean other kinds of reading — reading I do not because I have to, but because I want to, reading that might be considered “pleasure” reading or “leisure” reading.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)This is not to say that there are not pleasures to be had in the kinds of professional reading I’ve mentioned, or that English professors don’t ever want to do that reading. Of course they — we — do. But it’s still reading for work, and it’s pretty clear that “how do you find time to read?” really means “how do you find time for reading that isn’t for work?” Again, this is a question that can be tinged with envy, as if to say the person would also like to do that, but it’s also implicitly, inevitably, judgmental: “why aren’t you as busy with work as I am — why aren’t you too busy to read?”

For as long as I have been asked this question, I have struggled with how to respond. Usually I say something tediously self-deprecating, like “I have no social life” (true), or “I don’t really read that much” (also true, compared to most of the bloggers and critics and book lovers I know online). I try not to get defensive, or to ask, in return, how they find time for things that I don’t do (extensive gardening, say, or running marathons, or going to the theater) — my  point would not be that they should not do these other things, of course, but that we all have at least some things that we choose to do, and my thing is reading. It always has been, since childhood.

My suspicion, though, is that the people who ask me about reading aren’t thinking about their own leisure activities as the problem. They accept these things as welcome breaks from what they’re usually doing, which is working. What I suspect they have trouble with is giving themselves permission to do reading that isn’t for work, because if they are settling down to read, surely they should be using that reading time to work. Reading is always already too much like work, because it is our work, and so the zero-sum game they imagine is not between time to read and time to go to yoga or binge-watch Breaking Bad, but between time to read Barbara Pym and time to beaver away on that next peer-reviewed article.

Academics are prone to working all the time, or at least to thinking they should be working all the time — or, some have more cynically proposed, to taking pride in saying they are working all the time: there is a kind of perverse prestige in proclaiming “I’m terribly busy!” in response to every casual “how are you?” This is not necessarily a good thing. It’s also not necessarily a nice thing, because in this context, asking me “how do you find time to read?” kind of sounds like an assertion of superiority: “you are not as busy as I am!”

macke woman readingBut the truth is, I’m probably not, if by “busy” you mean spending every available minute doing academic work — though that depends, of course, on how you define “working” (not to mention “academic”). I have argued before that, for me anyway, the line between leisure reading and reading for research is not as clear as all that. A good current example would be that for several years now I have been reading romance novels just for fun — but in January 2017 I’m teaching my first incarnation of our “Pulp Fiction” class, in which I expect to assign a romance novel (probably Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels). Though a crucial part of my preparation will be turning from reading romance fiction to reading criticism and scholarship about romance fiction, there’s no doubt that the time I’ve spent reading novels and getting a preliminary sense of the general terrain (including by reading tweets, blogs, and essays by better-informed romance readers) has made taking on this pedagogical challenge feasible for me.

Similarly, I read mystery novels for decades before offering my first class in that field, and  every mystery I read now contributes to my understanding of what is possible in and interesting about that genre. I have incorporated many books into my classes that I initially read “only” for myself; some of my leisure reading — such as Ahdaf Soueif’s novels — has led to specifically academic as well as non-academic publications. My teaching has been generally enriched by my awareness of what is going  on in the wider literary world. (Surely it’s not only English professors who explicitly specialize in contemporary literature who have any stake in its directions and debates.) Then there’s the reading I do for reviews, which are not exactly my “job,” or at least which prove difficult to get acknowledged (counted) as “academic work” but which are certainly some kind of work — sometimes, now, even paid work! And, last but not least, there’s this blog, in which I turn my reading into something — something not clearly academic, but at any rate less ephemeral than personal experience.

So one way of justifying the time I spend reading is to explain its hybridity: it is both personal and professional time. When I read, I am not (just) relaxing, I am being productive! I am busy … busy reading! But why do I even feel the need to justify it?  What is wrong with making time for reading that isn’t for work? I have acknowledged that I have not been able to sustain a standard program of academic publication at the same time as the range of other things I’ve been doing — but it’s not reading that’s to blame, as I have always been a reader. A whole array of contexts and choices has led to that situation, one of which is the choice not to let all my waking hours be devoted to academic work. In this, I suppose, I have anticipated the “slow professor” movement — although I am “slow” only by narrow academic standards, and only in strictly academic contexts. (I actually consider the past 5 years of my life as the most busy and productive years I’ve ever had as a critic.) I recognize that I can do this because I enjoy the privilege of tenure (which I earned, mind you, by meeting all the requisite academic standards) — but so too do almost all of the people I’ve had these exchanges with over the years. If they want to slow down and read, they absolutely can, and they can do so without compromising on their actual professional obligations (though they may diminish their chances of professional advancement). They just have to change their habits and separate their sense of self-worth from an academic lifestyle of constant work that can actually be as destructive as it is productive.

Ironically, maybe they’ll finally have that chance when they retire. Or will the internalized norms of university life mean that even when they unequivocally have the time for it, they will still struggle to let themselves just read? In any case, when we talk about having time to read, we’re really talking about a lot more than how we allocate hours in the day.

13 Comments to What We’re (Really) Talking About When We Talk About “Time to Read”

  1. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    April 10, 2016 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that the potential effect on professional advancement has a lot to do with it, but there could be another factor at work: in some cases, reading for pleasure could be too much like more work.

    The real answer is that only reading for work suits their objectives (or at least they think so) and reading for pleasure suits yours. So the next time someone asks how you find the time to read, maybe you could say “because I enjoy it and get something out of it I wouldn’t get from alternative uses of my time” or, more bluntly but possibly more offensively, “because it’s important to me.”

  2. April 10, 2016 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Oh, this is brilliant. I also get this question a lot, from other graduate students in philosophy. I read for pleasure all the time — would ditch the academy in a second if I thought they were mutually exclusive — and hear the same undertones of accusation and condescension in the question. One of my friends was more explicit with me once, though. She followed up this question with another: “if you have all this free time, and you read so much, why aren’t you reading more philosophy?” I think that’s maybe an additional aspect of the phenomenon, or perhaps an extension of what you’re saying when you mention that reading somehow gets stuck, as a whole, on the wrong side of the work-relaxation dichotomy — the idea that time spent reading things other than the (admittedly infinite) pile of must-read works of scholarship is somehow a failure of duty, letting the side down, being insufficiently monomaniacal. My friend’s question surprised me, because I probably read more philosophy than the average phd student, and my friend knows this, but she proudly followed up the questions by stating that she only read 20 books last year, and they were all philosophy. So the implication was that academics have a duty to maintain a certain kind of purity of specialization or somthing. But I think this is nuts. Specialization in intellectual work has its incredible benefits, but a tendency to marinate in disciplinary hermeticism probably isn’t one. Three cheers for the good ship pleasure reading and the breath of whim that fills her sails!

  3. April 10, 2016 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps this sort of thing happens to many people who follow a pursuit. I’ve frequently been questioned (often in astonished tones) about how I have managed to write while raising three children. Sometimes I’ve wondered if they are questioning whether a woman can both be a good mother and write books. But it’s amazing how much one can get done by foregoing things that others find essential (like television. Or a certain amount of sleep.) Usually I remember to credit my husband for cooking every night for the past two decades… Perhaps what I should credit most is tossing away my tenure, as doing three very large things appears quite difficult.

  4. April 11, 2016 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post. I’m not an academic (or a parent), but my job requires me to read hundreds and often thousands of pages a week. Of all the pastimes I might have chosen, I chose one that makes each successive pair of eyeglasses just a few millimeters thicker: reading fiction. Or rather, I might say that reading fiction chose me, since I’m puzzled by many of those who don’t read out of curiosity or who see reading beyond that required for their work as somehow, as you point out, not informing their work, or more accurately, their humanity. I cannot not read, and I’m astounded by how much I can read even on exceptionally busy days, when my only protected time might be the 7-minute shuttle ride I take in the morning and the same ride back in the afternoon. Over a week that’s a good hour+. Finding time to write, on the other hand, seems a great deal more difficult; one can’t easily do it while waiting for a bus, for example.

    As for the specialization argument, many of the academics I know seem to put that to shame. For example I’ve learned of scores of great works of literature from a highly-recognized mathematician, one of the busiest people I know, who’s also one of the best read. I’m convinced too that such wide-ranging reading makes such people better at their jobs and, certainly, more interesting as human beings – at least to those of us not conversant in their area of specialization – so there are a lot of positive externalities to such “productive” relaxing.

  5. April 12, 2016 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    I stumbled across your post in my Twitter feed–just a quick comment to say how happy I am to learn of another professor who’ll be teaching popular romance. We have a handful of pieces on popular romance pedagogy over at the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, and Laura Vivanco has kept track of many other courses that focus in part or exclusively on the genre, posting links and materials over at the Teach Me Tonight blog. (I may have posted some of my teaching notes or paper topics on Lord of Scoundrels there at some point, too.) I hope that some of these will be of use–best of luck with the new class!

  6. April 12, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    (Oops! Left out a character in the journal’s website: it’s http://jprstudies.org.)

  7. April 15, 2016 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    This is both funny and sad at the same time and makes me rather glad I didn’t decide to pursue a career as an academic. But then there are plenty of people who are not academics who wonder how anyone has time to read. It is, as you say, something we choose to do.

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