No matter what stage we are at in our careers, and no matter what our discipline, everyone in academe from first-semester graduate students to full professors has one thing in common: we read. And we don’t just read a little. We read a lot. We read primary sources. We read journal articles and monographs. We read emails and meeting minutes. We read student papers and lab reports. We read conference abstracts and grant applications. And that doesn’t take into consideration the other things we read: CNN, the New York Times, Facebook, Twitter, ProfHacker, and that was just this morning. Given that so much of our lives is consumed with professional reading, it can be difficult to find time for pleasure reading. Or even if we do make time for pleasure reading, it can be difficult to enjoy it. It isn’t always relaxing to read for pleasure simply because the list of professional texts to read is never-ending.
But several years ago, I decided to make pleasure reading a priority. To be clear, it isn’t my top priority, but it’s on the list, and most nights, I read a “fun” book for about 30 minutes before I go to sleep (the word “fun” is in scare quotes because I have a particular weakness for crime novels). Fun books must meet a few criteria to make the cut for me:
- They are not on any current syllabi.
- They are not connected to any current research projects.
- I am not reading them under any kind of other professional obligation.
The final point is most important. The book for freshman orientation would not count as a fun book, even if it were a crime novel by my favorite writer because I am reading it for something besides enjoyment. That’s not to say that fun books can’t become fodder for other things—they can and have—but those other things must come from the book rather than be the reason I am reading.
Why the strict line between business and pleasure? Much of it has to do with when I read—before I go to sleep. In short, the last thing I want to do when I am trying to fall asleep is rev up my brain. Pleasure reading is a way for me to relax; professional reading is not. It is engaging, challenging, and stimulating (or it should be).
Everyone from Oprah Winfrey to the NEH has published summer reading lists, and with a good six weeks left of summer, I am determined to knock out a few more pleasure titles before heading back into the classroom. For some people, summer is a time to catch up on the classics that they have missed—in point of fact, Oprah includes a lesser-known novel by Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son on her list this year. Or maybe you would like to use these last few summer weeks to indulge in lighter fare: Chick Lit, the Twilight saga, or other “beach reading” (with or without the SPF and fruity drinks). I’m currently reading Justin Cronin’s The Passage and next up will be Stephen King’s Under the Dome.
What was the last book that you read for pleasure? Do you read for fun regularly, or do you reserve it for holidays and airplanes? Please share in the comments section.