As someone who teaches English Literature it is, of course, part of my job to read books all year round. This is not always as easy as it sounds, though. Of course, I’m always reading that week’s class texts by way of preparation for a lecture or a seminar – reminding myself exactly who does what in ‘Jane Eyre’ or which scene of ‘As You Like It’ features the ‘All the world’s a stage” speech, and so on. This is the kind of reading that sends you into class with a copy of the course texts filled with bookmarks and, on a good day, the kind of working knowledge that can keep a seminar discussion going. If asked whether I read books I’d reply that I’d hardly be doing my job if I didn’t.
Alongside that, there is ‘academic’ reading, such as that undertaken for research purposes. This includes the texts that I’m planning to write upon at some point; the secondary sources and contextual studies that give me the background for the article; and, of course, the journal articles themselves – dutifully downloaded and printed out (not ecological, I know, but I’m ‘old-school’ enough to want to hold what I’m reading and a screen doesn’t do it for me). As my current project book gathers momentum (slowly) there has been more of this: usually on afternoons in the British Library as I read, transcribe, and summarize contents from the stocks of that wonderful institution and slowly accumulate a working knowledge of the field. There’s not much room for this in the usual teaching day, but a quick hour may yet be snatched in between classes, meetings, tutorials, and the joys that can be found in one’s email Inbox.
Reading that takes place outside of those two areas, and could be called ‘leisure reading’ usually ends up being the substance of a train journey or an hour or so after work. I’ve come to realise that it’s not usually the most highbrow of lists and usually involves a crime or a dead body: James Runcie’s series of Sidney Chambers stories, Christopher Fowler’s wonderful Bryant and May mysteries, and the British Library’s series of ‘Crime Classics’ re-issues that brings ‘lost’ works from the Golden Age of detection back into circulation. ‘Weightier’ books – those not being read for anything specifically work-related but picked up on the grounds that they sound interesting and perhaps on some level should be read by someone who considers themselves scholarly are often started with trepidation: not because of anxieties about the quality of their content but more about the practicalities of being able to give them the time and the attention that they clearly deserve. Of course I want to read that new biography of X or that historical survey of Y, but I’m awkwardly aware that with teaching, marking, and doing my own work I’ll probably be half-way through it a month from now and may well have forgotten what happens in the opening pages.
The summer holiday offers, at least, the possibility of changing that, and although I’m always over-optimistic when it comes to thinking of how many ‘reading days’ I’ll actually have between now and September there is at least the thought of some longer spells of reading that might enable me to take on some of the larger works bought in recent months and hitherto untroubled. Mark Greengrass’ history of post-Reformation Europe ‘Christendom Destroyed’ tops the summer pile, and Karl Schlogel’s account of Stalin’s purges ‘Moscow 1937’ is on order too. Then there’s also the holes to be filled in one’s literary reading. Copies of ‘The Magic Mountain’, ‘Buddenbrooks’ and ‘Doctor Faustus’ – acquired over the past decade and still unread – remind me that I had planned to make this the summer when I made en effort to extend my knowledge of Thomas Mann beyond that undergraduate skim through ‘Death in Venice’ nearly two decades ago. Enough to be going on with, at least.
As I say, I always seem to acquire books in the belief that I read far more than I do, and it will take more than a summer holiday to catch up with myself. Still, the thought is always there, even if the hours in the day are not always so. Will these books be read? Well, I’ll leave this post alone and see what can be done…