Learning to Read

Having banged on about eBooks the other week, I thought it might be an idea to share some insights into a related topic – that of actually reading in relation to the PhD in general.

When people ask me how the PhD is going I generally say fine*.  Then they ask me what I’ve been doing these past 6 weeks or so.  And I blush lightly, being the shy retiring flower that I am, and say “Well I’ve been mostly reading.  Lots of reading. Whole books and everything”; and then I laugh rather self-consciousnessly.  This is the point at which I tend to get one of the following reactions from the questioner

  • PhDs sound so easy I’m going to do one as well and doss around reading books. What a lark!
  • Oh, is that all?  I thought you’d be doing something…you know, hard!
  • Reading? Hah!  I wish I had time to read at my job, must be nice to lie in bed all day just reading. Do you even get dressed any more?

"There's a camel in a Twingo in this book?"
However, what I try and explain to them is actually reading for a PhD is quite a bit different to picking up the latest JK Rowling or Dan Brown and reading for pleasure.  Ask yourself this for example, when was the last time you sat down a read an entire book in a day or two?  Okay, when was the last time you did the same again the following day?  And then a third day?**  Chances are unless you’re a researcher or a research student you might be struggling to find an example.  I know I would be.  The thing is I’ve always read, a lot, from a very early age – as a child I had a reading age some 5-10 years ahead of my age group.  Somewhat famously I started my last year at junior school having read everything in the school’s reading scheme and was sat down with a copy of Mallory’s Sword in the Stone to keep me quiet (damn, but that book is dry).  At University as an undergraduate (biomedical technologist) I used to sit in the library flipping between papers on pathology for my course and text books on high energy physics and astronomy for fun.

(Sad isn’t it!)

To this day I’ve generally got more than a few books for pleasure on the go (I’ve mainlined Jim Butcher’s Dresden File novels this year – sheer unadulterated pleasure), text books, cookery books, DIY manuals as well as fiction. Erm, and obviously usually more than one or two comic books or graphic novels.  So coming into the PhD I didn’t expect the reading to be a challenge.  Oh how wrong I was.

Seconds out - let the brain fight begin!Reading for a PhD is hard work, and by the end of a working day I tend to find myself pretty worn out as all sorts of new words and concepts fight for dominance in my brain which is mostly trying to work out what to cook for dinner at this point, and would like a break from trying to handle the information commons.   I have managed to identify some of the reasons just why the reading is a challenging process though.  Firstly because a lot of it, indeed nearly all of it, has been in areas with which I’m less than conversant.  This means I end up scribbling down various notes to myself to investigate terms and concepts that the author assumes his audience are familiar with; but in my case I’m not.  It’s one of the reasons I’m steadily building my own glossary.  This certainly helps me get my head fully around the concepts by forcing myself to explain them in my own works.  However,it does decrease the speed with which I can read a book.  However, now I’m more conversant with a lot of the terminology this obstacle is less of a problem.

Secondly it’s because I’m trying to not just read these books, scanning through the pages and trying to get a general idea of the narrative.  Oh no, what I’m trying to do is really understand the arguments  logic and examples that are being presented.  Partly because I know I’ll need to apply these to my own work, but secondly because I’m trying to train myself to think in these new ways.  I think this is beginning to tell already as I’m finding myself applying some of the dialectic to everyday situations.

Thirdly it’s because some of the books seem to have come straight from the shelves of Miskatonic or Unseen Universities’ library shelves.  I swear the words dance and fight me as I try to read them at times, and I’ve almost walked away in disgust from a couple of books; but I’ve not let myself.  It may just be that some of the authors I’m reading are either not the most accessible of writers (heaven forbid!) or perhaps their styles are more alien to me; but it does turn the act of reading from less of an engagement with the text and into more a battle of wills.  These are the books where I need a break every 20 minutes.  The better ones, those are the ones I glance up from to discover the world has gone dark unnoticed around me.

I was an academic like you, and then I took a book to the kneeI’ve also noticed a tendency when reading books as well that it takes a devils own age to get into the flow, and that my concentration and focus are hard to maintain.  Not to mention the speed at which I’m actually reading is a heck of a lot less.  However, once I’m into a book for an hour or so my speed and attention just pick up and at its best it is as though the writer is just downloading all his thoughts straight into my brain.  The nearest analogy is the idea of immersed perception in computer games – the longer you play the game the less you become aware of your surroundings.  Your focus, pleasure and reaction to the game are all heightened – I’ve experienced this for years, you only have to see me physically dodging or reacting in my chair while playing Skyrim or Mass Effect3 to understand!

Reading focus

And I really relish this feeling of enhanced textural immersion and wish I was getting it more often, a legal educational high!

What is less satisfying is that anything more than a distraction of a few minutes (say lunch) or something that requires me to shift gears (a fish seller at the front door trying to flog me a flounder) and I come back to the text…

And I’m back to square one  focus wise.

Sure I can pick up speed again, but it takes that good hour to reach anything close to what it was before.  And as the day goes on, and my fatigue increases like anyone else, it can be tricky if not impossible some days to reach back to that reading focus nirvana.  I have found that isolating myself as much as possible from temptations or distractions can help recover the focus, and on some days this has seen me end up with my hoodie pulled around my eyes with ear plugs in.  Extreme measures, but there are days when I just want to reach the end of the book before close of play.  I know Mrs Llama has been a bit annoyed on a couple of occasions when she’s been around and I’ve been reading – as she assumes that my lack of response is down to some residual llama grumpiness, but the truth of the matter normally is (in work hours, normal llama grumpiness resumes at end of the working day) I’m just trying not to lose my focus.

So that’s some brief thoughts of my experiences to date with intensive reading.  It’s exhausting, frustrating, exhilarating  challenging and illuminating in varying degrees.  And slowly page by page it is recrafting my cognitive faculties in ways that I’m only just beginning to appreciate; a slowly flowering inchoate academic aptitude***.


*Actually as I don’t see that many people locked up in Llama Towers most days on my own, it’s thankfully not that common a question. But it does get asked okay!

**Actually I do this on holiday with novels, the rest of the time it takes me weeks to finish them!

***Yes, there is no hope for me as a normal person any more – throwing around flowery phrases like that!

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