Like many professors, I've always been a promiscuous reader. From cereal boxes to 19th-century novels, if it's in front of me, I'll read it. Especially in the summer.
I'm usually reading at least five books. Late afternoons I'll be deep into a work-related volume, usually a piece of literary nonfiction, something I'll either want to teach or study to see what moves and tricks I can steal to use in my own writing. That is when I indulge in any John McPhee work I haven't gotten to, parse the sentences of Joan Didion, or wallow in the essays of E.B. White.
In my car I have audiobooks from the library. The new Tracy Kidder, or a novel that's gotten critical acclaim like Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or a classic I've somehow missed (I just finished listening to Lord of the Flies). Books can make driving around doing errands a pleasure.
I like to take my iPod on superlong runs. I love to hear Malcolm Gladwell's books in his own voice, and currently I'm listening to Michael Pollan read The Omnivore's Dilemma. My electronic library is full of things like Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.
I don't leave home without my Kindle. If I have to wait in a doctor's office or for my car's oil to be changed, I can sample a Sherlock Holmes story, a book or two of Paradise Lost, a couple of pages of The Autobiography of Ben Franklin, the stories of Mark Twain, or any of the novels of the Brontë sisters. I've downloaded all of those and more, many more—for free—and read to suit my mood. I'll also download whatever new blockbuster mystery Amazon is offering up gratis.
And then, well, I have the stack beside my bed.
When I first started teaching, I had a powerful and misguided need to be popular. So I brought a giant bag of trashy paperbacks I had read to my creative-writing course, and tried to donate them to my graduate students. You would have thought I'd offered these people a stash of child porn. No one wanted to touch the books; they only wanted highbrow novels. My students looked at me in a new way: That's what you read?
There was a time when I wouldn't have been caught dead with a less-than-serious book. I remember when my boss at Oxford University Press, now a longtime director of another prestigious scholarly publishing house, told me what he read at home. He would leave behind manuscripts on postmodern theory and incomprehensible lit crit and indulge in Robert Ludlum. Sometimes, when I was feeling snarky and superior—or, more to the point, wasn't getting my way on something—I'd say "Well, what can you expect from a guy who reads Patriot Games?" I didn't get it.
When you're young and thinky, you feel like you have to hurry to catch up, to read the things that everyone else has read. You have to make your reading time count. In college, I would go to an excellent used bookstore and look for the paperbacks with orange spines. The Penguin classics provided all the pulp I needed. While I wouldn't have recognized it at the time, I suppose that I harbored a recondite fear that if I didn't keep reading the good stuff, I would slip into the literary equivalent of having Cheez-Its for dinner. I suspected that reading crap would make me crappy.
And so I went to the opposite extreme, brandishing my dog-eared copy of Ulysses like a pride flag. The paperback I carried in my purse was The Palm at the End of the Mind, the selected poems of Wallace Stevens. I truly loved those books, but I also loved what they announced to the world about me. And I can't fault my graduate students for not wanting my recycled, salt-stained novels.
We read in different ways. Academics learn to ingest not only content, but also to analyze and critique an author's argument. Writers read to see not whodunit, but how the author did it. All the writers I know say they have lost the pleasure of reading in their own genres. It's constant work: How did he manage to earn that ending? How does she get away with those shifts in tense?
But we all need an off switch for our weary brains. Some of us activate it by watching soccer. Others by knitting baby hats. I wish my leisure activity were more different from my day job, but I can't help it. Reading is what I do for fun. And so I allow myself to suspend critical judgment and surrender to a plot-driven, fast-paced novel. I can ignore shoddy sentences (most of the time—Twilight proved too challenging even for me). I can handle flat characters and improbable twists. I hope I never stop shuddering at clichés, but sometimes a little shuddering is the price you have to pay to shut down your monkey mind.
Usually I'm diverted. Sometimes I learn stuff. I can't do every subgenre. You couldn't pay me to read fantasy or science fiction. Not that I haven't read some good ones and enjoyed them, but as Jessica Rabbit said, I'm just not drawn that way.
But chick lit can be a delight. Jennifer Crusie's novels are sharp and snappy, and I'd rather settle in with one of them than watch Tom Cruise strut his short stuff on a big screen. Give me a sociopathic serial killer and I'll spend hours in bed with him. I'll take a cozy murder mystery, a legal thriller, a medical suspense novel, and escape. Some of those authors are smarter than their books, but some of those books are darned good.
Ruth Rendell's American editor told me that she was one of the most brilliant authors he had ever worked with. This from a guy who had also published Stephen Hawking. Joseph Finder, brother of an editor at The New Yorker, is someone whose new thrillers I look forward to. But you're not likely to see his writing in The New Yorker.
I'm not immune to normal puritanical fears about wasting time. But during the school year, when I feel overwhelmed with deadlines, grading, and meetings, and am stuck in ruts of worry, or in the summer, when I need a break from writing, I'll take an afternoon off to lose myself for a few hours in a Michael Connolly, a Lee Child, a Margaret Maron, a Lisa Unger. Lately, like millions of others, I'm into Scandinavian noir.
What I hear from academic friends and graduate students is that they have too much to read and can't take any time to read for pleasure.
That attitude surprises me, since they are people who are engaged in writing. Reading outside of your discipline, for form as well as content, for pleasure as well as productivity, is one of the best things you can do to improve your work. Listening carefully to well-wrought sentences, paying attention to how an author keeps a reader engaged, can only help your own prose.
And it never hurts to be reminded of how books work. Plot-driven novels tend to vary paragraph and chapter length. Would it help the pace of your dissertation to have some smaller chunks amid the big blocks of content-thick text? There are cheap ways to make things seem immediate (using the present tense; having breathless short sentences), but there are also more sophisticated methods to make your manuscript compelling. When you read fiction, you pick up on those. Dipping into poetry reminds me to think about language, about the sounds as well as the sense. When I want to get psyched for writing, I find me some Gerard Manley Hopkins. All that juice and all that joy? Bring it on.
This summer I will continue to read five books at a time. I know that I will be sharing pulpy novels with some of my colleagues, those who can steal time away from kids—and mowing the lawn, paying the bills, and preparing new classes—to read for relaxation; those who understand that while imbibing serious, substantive work can make you smarter, reading less sober stuff doesn't necessarily make you dumber.