Never Read All of Anything

The best (and worst) advice I received when I got into grad school was “never read all of anything.” This is true for the most part; it is enough to skim most academic writing—the utility being that you know that it exists and can look at it in depth at a later point if necessary.  We’re taught “structured reading,” which is basically reading the introductory paragraph, the first sentence of each following paragraph, and the conclusion. This causes no small amount of angst among grad students, as many of us by virtue of having landed in grad school, read ALL of everything, all of the time, and being told that this most beloved of skills is a actually a detriment can be a bit shocking.  Very quickly though we learn that structured reading is a survival skill—there is just too much published to keep afloat.

This is exacerbated if your dissertation focuses on anything even mildly interdisciplinary—I found myself trying to come to grips with the literature from New Media, Visual Studies, Structuralism, and Actor-Network Theory all within the space of a semester (Spring 2008! I’m so happy you are behind me!) and I still don’t think my brain has entirely recovered.  There were occasional weak cries from deep within, “but I’m an archaeologist!” that were very quickly squelched.  These cries have recently reappeared while teaching students Final Cut Pro and hodge-podge film theory, but never mind.

Structured reading has also changed the way I write for academic audiences, or at least how I try to write—with a strong introductory paragraph, clear opening sentences, and a concise, concluding paragraph.  Y’know, like they taught us in grade school.  None of the meandering, obfuscatory nonsense that people use to make themselves sound important through fiat of literary flourish.  Well, okay, so not much at least.

Indeed, most things you can safely breeze through, but there are some texts that you absolutely cannot skim, and actually have to revisit over and over again.  I’ve poured over Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social and We Have Never Been Modern at least three times now, and I still have to go back and read it from time to time.  I’m in the middle of re-reading Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment for dissertation writing and trying to take in every word.  I keep Sontag/Barthes/Berger close, and Sara Pink and Gillian Rose are never too far off either.

Before I start listing every book on my bookshelf though, grad school has changed the way I read other books as well.  I don’t read a lot of fiction anymore and I am a tyrannical snob about the books I read for leisure.  I read the New Yorker on the bus for fun, but have no remorse about quitting in the middle of a short story that I am not enjoying.  I can generally tell by the shape of a poem whether or not to bother with it.  I wonder if poets learn poem morphology—probably too practical, honestly.

So, all of this was a long prelude to what I really wanted to talk about–Tim Ingold and perception–but I’ll save it for a later blog post. This is already tl;dr anyway. Did you skim the post or was I chatty enough to hold your attention for a moment or two?

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