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?

11 responses to “Never Read All of Anything

  1. I too received the same advice, but have since forgotten so thanks for the reminder! Go easy on yourself about the fiction reading though..we all need at least a 30 minute mental break a day right?

  2. I read it, if you’re polling. And recognised that I should some day when the mythical time arises read some of what you speak of reading. But currently, I have too much to read…

  3. I read the whole post. :)

    I used to read all of everything, but I am rapidly finding out I just don’t have the time or attention span anymore… I’ll keep what you said in mind as I start my grad program!

  4. I like to flip your advice in the title around: “Never read any of everything.”

    This … this hasn’t got me very far, though.

  5. Reading your blog has given me some insight into 1) my daughter’s incessant, driven desire to be an archaeologist – specifically, a “field archaeologist” – you know, the kind that digs (LOL) and
    2) my own insane, driven desire to pursue a graduate degree (and ultimately a terminal degree).
    3) I owe you a debt of gratitude for pointing out the fact that I need to read the first paragraph and the first sentence of all my textbooks for sanity’s sake (although I prefer to read all of everything, LOL).
    Your blog is a refreshing highlight of my week/day, and I continue to wish you the best in all you do!

  6. I didn’t really intend for this to turn into a poll, but thank you very much for your responses!

    Catherine – the fiction reading thing is mostly my own fault–I mostly read classics, with some authors like Pamuk thrown into the mix. Oh, and comic books!

    Jonathan – I can’t even quantify the amount I should read anymore. It’s easier now that I’m trying to really focus on my dissertation and only read what is truly necessary to get finished. Thanks for commenting as well, now I know where your blog is!

    Notanester – Good luck as you start!

    Tom – hah!

    StaceyM – Thank you so much for the kind words! And good luck to both you and your daughter. :)

  7. I’ve got nothing constructive to say on reading, other than to say read while you can…I’m finding it hard to find time to read anything these days. But I did want to give a “what what” to Ingold…I just gave an SAA talk drawing on his temporality article. A good way to structure lots of diverse data sets.

  8. When I started reading your post I thought “gasp, is she going to say it?!”

    Yeah, we all do it but never talk about it. I think part of us feels guilty letting go of old school scholarship, even though the flood of information we are surrounding by constantly just does not allow for it anymore.

    But now that I can call it “structured reading”, I am in the clear – thanks!

  9. I think learning to skim read and get the gist of an article quickly is one of the most important skills any academic/grad student can have. There is just so much out there to be aware of, much of which is a few clicks away. So yes, a certain degree of clinically applied ruthlessness is a virtue in the case of keeping abreast of academic literature.

    But, despite that I think some students make the mistake of neglecting the important task of taking systematic notes about a source’s content as well as their thoughts on it. Even if you do only skim read the source, a good biblio database with accompanying notes is invaluable when trying to produce those hurried papers/presentations/lectures/reports. It’s a good investment of time for those sources you might want to come back to later, even if you are skim reading.

  10. I agree with you in that grad school has changed the way I read other stuff too. I love to read contemporary literature and before grad school I used to have this “rule” that I would finish reading everything that I started. Now I realized I don’t really have to, and I also realized that I can read two or more novels at a time in the same way I read several archaeology-related literature. Although I have to admit I have a bottom line, and that is, I will never skim a novel, either I read it or I don’t, which of course is not the same for archaeological literature.

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