Thursday, May 9, 2013

Reading Novels Requires Discipline

(From the May 9 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Colleges have had their spring graduation ceremonies, and the end of the high school year is less than a month away. It’s time to think about “summer reading.”

I think about it with a mix of anxiety and joy.

“Summer reading” is the notion that people read more in the summer. It also conjures images of reading lighter fare, specifically some popular novels that have a good story line conducive more to quick page turning than deep introspection. Hence my feelings of anxiety and joy.

The joy comes from thoughts of reading for simple pleasure and not for work. I don’t have to grade it, review it, comment on it, or otherwise think too hard. I can set it aside occasionally to nap on my patio, or to cool off in Lake Michigan. An easy reading novel connotes more than just reading for pleasure, it is a state of mind and a season.

But there is also that anxiety. That comes from a sense of guilt. Can I really get away with reading something so simple, just for, dare I say it, fun? Shouldn’t I be reading impressive and thick hard cover tomes on subjects related to the academic field I teach and other related intellectual fare?

I need to get over it. I need to tell myself that reading the latest John Grisham or Jim Harrison or other favorite novelist is perfectly ok. For one, it is good to relax. We can’t be on duty all the time. The brain needs refreshment too. At the same time, reading novels can have tremendous benefit beyond simple relaxation. Many novels are didactic in nature, meaning they teach us something. It could be a moral point gleaned from the subject of the story. It could be education about a place or particular subject, such as in historical novels, or those set in or written by authors in other countries. In other words, novels can be both entertaining and educational.

But I need some discipline to go ahead and read a bunch of novels on my list. Why? Because there is all the other “stuff” in my life. Summer also brings yard work, household projects, and a job that doesn’t just stop. Mostly, the available time for reading novels is eroded by all the other things I feel compelled to read.

First there is email. I get way too much of it. I get about 30-40 emails per day at home. Much of this can be sorted and deleted quickly since it is mostly personal correspondence or marketing emails from vendors sending offers or electronic versions of bills. But a lot of my home email is actually stuff to read—electronic newsletters from various newspapers, blogs and other sources. Then there’s my work email, where I get easily 100 emails per day. (I always laugh when a student comes to my door and says “I’m the one who emailed you.” Would that there were only one!). Besides the student emails, there are emails from faculty colleagues and administrators. Many of these require not just reading, but responding or doing more work. I also sort my work email into folders to try to manage and unclutter the flow. But these folders require lots of reading too—social media updates, alerts to the subjects of newly published academic journals and various trade publications. I feel compelled to read all of this to stay up to date in my field.

I mentioned social media. That is a black hole of reading. Not only do I use social media, I teach it, so I feel I must be engaged on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, and other social media platforms. But as many have said, this can be a real “time suck” that takes me away from reading other things.

I also get hard copies of journals, trade publications and magazines. They sit next to stacks of nonfiction and academic related books to read. One stack of these books resting in my home office looks very familiar—they were there last summer when I intended to get through them over the summer.

So you can see my consternation. Perhaps you have the same problem. Some of my friends on a social media site called “Goodreads” seem to rub it in when they post about books they’ve recently read. I envy them.

But like I said, I plan to discipline myself. I am going to set aside time this summer to read novels. I will do so without guilt. The lawn can be edged later—or not. I can skim those professional blogs and publications later. I am going to focus on reading novels. I deserve a little relaxing entertainment this summer. And my work will be better for it come fall.

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