My Daily Read: Jonathan Gottschall

Jonathan Gottschall teaches English at Washington & Jefferson College. His new book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April.

Q: What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

A. I’m all business in the morning. I wake up sharp and eager and roll straight out of bed and into my day’s work.  Aside from cereal boxes, I’m most likely to read my own stuff first thing, something I’m working on and revising. If I’m not in an active writing phase, I’ll chip away at my pile of research books and articles—moving exciting things to the top, and burying dull things underneath.

Q: What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to or read regularly? What do you read in print vs. online vs. mobile?

A. I don’t often read newspapers.  I get my general information about the world mainly from NPR, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. I recently cancelled my subscription to The New York Review of Books because it seemed to show up in my mailbox every second day, and it made me feel sad tossing it—well-scanned, but unread—into the recycling bin.

Q: What books have you read recently?  Do any stand out?

A. In grad school I began cultivating a strict utilitarianism in my reading. This made me more productive, but it cut into the pleasure I used to get out of books.  Then, about five years ago, I discovered, a service that allows me to maintain discipline about my professional reading and get around to the general reading that improves the mind over the long run. I consume audiobooks—lots and lots of them, mainly novels—during those hours when I simply can’t do “work” reading: when driving, exercising, washing dishes, raking leaves. This allows me to shoehorn more great books into my day, and it’s not too much to say that it has improved my quality of life.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve listened to William Styron’s stunning Sophie’s Choice (which I didn’t have the courage to face before) and enjoyed three novels by Richard Russo, including his hilarious and poignant Straight Man, which deserves a place of high honor in the canon of academic satire (I’d place it just below Lucky Jim). I also enjoyed Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which is that rare find: a work of serious scholarship with an optimistic outlook. Pinker demonstrates that, when it comes to violence in all of its myriad forms, we are living in (far and away) the best of times.

Q: Has your reading of professional journals changed in the past 10 years? How so?

A. I can think of two major changes.  First, even a decade ago, doing intensive journal research meant spending many frustrating days in the musty catacombs of libraries—fumbling with microfilm, kicking copiers, fleeing in terror from library trolls, and slogging through interlibrary loan forms.  It was rotten.  Thanks to electronic databases this is no longer the case.  The other big change is that I read less and less in the journals of my home field.  Literary scholarship seems generally aimless these days, and terribly discouraged. The confidence of the field—which was never all that high—collapsed around 15 years ago and has not recovered.  There is no galvanizing research program—little sense of what the field should be working towards, or how it might get there (I’ve written books trying to answer these questions, but my colleagues aren’t rushing to take my advice).  So I spend more and more of my time reading in psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology—fields where confidence is strong, research programs are bold, and humanities-relevant knowledge is gradually accumulating.

Q: Do you read blogs? If so, what blogs do you like best?

A. I’m essentially an “old media” curmudgeon.  I rarely read blogs and I don’t use Twitter.  I know that there are good blogs out there, and I admire how some of them have outflanked publishing’s traditional gatekeepers.  But too many blogs—with their half-digested ideas and slapdash commentary on daily ephemera—show that gatekeepers have their uses.

Q: What are the guilty pleasures in your media diet?

A. I adore good genre fiction—mystery, horror, spy stories, sci-fi, historical adventures.  I take in quite a lot of it, mainly through my earbuds.  Over the last year or two, for example, I’ve enjoyed most of the great novels of James Cain, Raymond Chandler, and John le Carré, as well as a dozen or so of Patrick O’Brian’s addictively swashbuckling Aubrey/Maturin novels.  But I don’t feel guilty about these pleasures.  These novels are far superior to most of the literary fiction that I’m “supposed” to be reading—and reading guilt-free.

Sketch by Ted Benson.


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