Required Reading

My husband has a saying: "Anything you do for money gets old."

It's almost term time, which means I'm going to have reading to do. Not reading that I want to do, but reading that I have to do in order to be ready for class. At least, now it's reading that I have to do. When I set up the courses that I will be teaching, I specifically designed at least one of them (the graduate course) to give me the chance to do reading that I simply wanted to do (perhaps more accurately, to have done) for the sake of my research, but now that I've spent the last week sick and therefore unable to write and therefore trying to make the best of things by getting started on the reading for term, I know that, yet again, it simply doesn't work. As soon as reading becomes something assigned, whether for class or out of the conviction that it is something that I "need" to have read, it dies. It could be the most interesting book in the world, and yet as soon as I decide for some reason that it is something I should read, it takes every ounce of self-discipline I have to get through it, page after mind-numbing page.

I'm exaggerating. But not very much. It's ironic, of course. I have one of the best (if not the best) jobs in the whole world: nobody but myself ever tells me what to do (okay, again, slight exaggeration; I really don't want to do all that committee work, especially reading applications); it's entirely up to me (okay, again, mostly) what I teach or write about. Practically speaking, there is no reason in the world for me ever to read anything (except applications) I don't want to. I chose the field that I study; I chose the things about the field that I want to concentrate on. Shoot, I defined the field of things that I study, that being, after all, the whole point of research. And yet, more often than not I spend my days oppressed by the feeling that I haven't read enough (when it is only myself who is defining "enough"), with the corollary that I really "must" read this or that book, even if I'm not really feeling very interested in it today. Worse, I feel like a hypocrite, because, of course, I'm also the one assigning things to other people to read, making it their "required reading." No wonder I can barely stay awake much of the time when I'm doing my reading for "work."

It's not always like this when I read. Sometimes, gloriously, there is simply something that I want to know. It grips me, possesses me, energizes me, and I find myself going to the library eagerly, scooping up all the books that, yes, just interest me. When this happens, I can read for hours and hours and barely come up for air, no problem. It was like that with the comics this summer. I'm sure I read three or four (academic) books in a week (no, maybe two weeks--who was counting?) just because I wanted to. Okay, so there was the guilty pleasure of working (although it didn't feel like work) on something other than what I was supposed (but only according to a plan that I myself had made) to be doing, but doing research does seem to be what I most enjoy. Until it's what I'm supposed to be doing (read, "for money"), at which point it collapses back into work. Again, this summer, I spent a week or two reading about centering prayer, eager to learn everything I could about how it could help me find God. Theoretically, the reading I've been doing this week (Langland's Piers Plowman, Walter Hilton's Scala perfectionis, Humbert of Romans's On Preaching, Bonaventure's Itinerarium mentis in Deum, John of Caulibus's Meditationes vitae Christi) should excite me just as much: it's almost all about contemplation, after all. Instead, I just find myself doing what I always do when I have a book that I "have" to read: counting the pages that I've read in an hour, calculating how much time it's going to take me to finish.

I have no idea how to get around this. I have fantasies about telling my students, "Just read as much as you feel like," but practically speaking, that would be a disaster. At least, it seems like it would. The only thing that makes our discussions in class remotely possible--perhaps more accurately, remotely productive--is (quite literally) being on the same page: we need to have something in common to talk about if I am going to teach my students anything about how to think about texts. Plus, there is the inescapable fact that learning about history means lots and lots and lots of reading. Just like long hours in a lab or on the practice field, you have to put in the time reading stuff otherwise you simply don't know enough (that word again). There is, practically speaking, no other way to learn about history unless you go on field trips to historic sites (as if; even I can't afford to get myself to all the places that I read about), and even then, you're going to have to spend most of your time reading in the sources and scholarship to know what "we" (who is this "we"?) know about what happened there. And then there's the fact that most of what I study happened not so much in particular places, as in people's heads, the only access to which is, yes, through books and (in larger part than I think many of my colleagues are willing to admit) our own imagination. More reading.

Is this, as my husband says, simply inevitable with anything that we do for money? Or is it a flaw in the way we think about education and, yes, research? On the one hand, being able to do something, anything, like thinking or writing about the past requires certain skills and experience, none of which is possible to acquire without practice. We in our current educational system tend to talk about literacy as if it were default, something everybody should be able to acquire, like talking, but for most of human history it was recognized that literacy (reading or writing) was a skill, like composing or playing music, to which some people were more drawn than others and which, nevertheless, took years of training to acquire. On the other hand, think about the people who become expert at music: they practice pretty much all the time, and yet, for those whom the music bugs bites, they don't really experience it as work. (I'm guessing here from the fact that great musicians always talk about how much they love what they do, but I'm also extrapolating from my experience here, of writing for my blog.) Think about it: things which we do because we're simply curious are sources of great joy. And yet, the same things become instantly burdensome as soon as they become something we are doing because we're supposed to.

I wish I could make this a rule for myself: follow your passion. Trust that what you want to know about is what really matters, not what other people tell you that you should know about. But (I can hear the objections rising) what would become of our academic disciplines if we studied in that way? Aren't audodidacts (which is what you're describing) famous for the chaos of subjects in which they indulge? Except that the majority of our modern academic fields are simply the product of the obsessions of those who defined them. "Interdisciplinarity" is just a fancy word for saying, "I read around in the stuff that interests me." Or, at least, it should be. Heaven forbid we make it another requirement. What to do? Our institutions require us to be trained to do something specific ("Teach history"), but the reality of human experience suggests that the best work arises not from obligation, but from interest. And yet, it takes great discipline to realize our best interests. Nobody can get on the fencing strip and "just fence" and expect to do anything but make an incredible mess of things without years of doing footwork and drills. And yet, again, the drills don't really feel like drills when one is gripped by the passion.

So is it the money (the obligation to do something so as to be able to live) or the demands of the practice itself that gets old? Or is it something else altogether that I can't see right now because I have so much reading to do?


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