How do you fit in reading academic books (not related directly to your research)?

by Eszter Hargittai on October 26, 2018

Research that is most relevant to my scholarship tends to get published in journals and I have ways of keeping up with such work. I have a much harder time fitting in reading academic books. They don’t tend to be directly related to my research so there is rarely any urgency in reading them as they are unlikely to inform my work directly (although, of course, could easily inform my work in more indirect ways). Lots of books get published on the social aspects of digital media that may not need to be cited in my own writing, but I am nonetheless curious to read simply because they are of interest to me more generally. I’d like to know how others fit in such book-reading. Are there specific regular time slots you set aside for this? If yes, how often? Has your approach worked?

I started a book club as part of the Digital Society Initiative at my university as a way to get myself to read at least a few books a year. This way I set aside several hours leading up to the book club meeting, but I don’t think it’s realistic to do that every week. Or is that what I should be doing? We read 4-5 books a year so 4-5 such slots on my annual calendar is not a problem. But this is way less than the structured time I’d like to spend on book reading. Please share your experiences even if they concern failed attempts, I’m curious to hear.

Commutes are one possibility, but my train ride to work is just 20 minutes, which is not enough to make that much of a dent. (I’m not complaining about my commute time, just recognizing that it’s not a ton of time for meaningful reading.) Evening hours I reserve for other types of reading or other activities (like making art).

As for the physical environment needed to read comfortably, I am all set there. I bought a very comfy chaise longue (IKEA’s Grönlid) for my office and it’s done wonders for making my way through readings of all sorts such as grant applications I am reviewing. But so yeah, with so many demands on our reading time (articles closely tied to research, student papers, colleagues’ work I’m commenting on, refereeing), how do I fit in more structured time for book reading?



Alan White 10.27.18 at 3:32 am

Eszter (if I may), I wish I had some real wisdom here. I don’t. I am just retired, and struggled my entire 40-year academic teaching career with this issue because, well, I have always been in love with teaching, writing about new ideas and gaining insight, but turned out saddled with a 4/4 teaching load, and so I always fought for time just to read in my specialties and anything beyond them was mostly left off. I made enough effort to keep up in free will and philosophy of time, but generally lost out in keeping up with fiction or one true love, poetry. And all that I did accomplish was only because I was childless through a lengthy, troubled marriage. I simply cannot imagine how one juggles a love for teaching-intensive academia allied with a love for family without dropping at least one ball. In fact, the biggest single revelation of retirement is how much my devotion to the classroom and keeping up with my interests stressed me. Since retiring early this year, I’ve dropped 15 lbs and my BP and resting heart rate have dropped drastically — from marginally hypertensive to near marathoner’s levels (seriously!). I had no idea how what I loved was stressing my body till now.

In the latter part of my career, continuing till now, the single biggest factor that led to my reading beyond my academic interests was to get into a book club composed of faculty friends at my university. In 15 plus years we’ve read well over a hundred books, and commitment to the group provided the discipline to make sure I could participate in discussion. I’ve read so many fiction and non-fiction works I never would have by myself, mostly good ones too, but learning from the failures as well (I once literally threw The Lovely Bones across a room when I felt it had utterly betrayed my soft-pedaled suspension of disbelief about an afterlife narrator when the protagonist’s dead spirit “entered” a body–the layers of narrative BS just built up too much). So I recommend the book club approach–especially if one is as fortunate as I was and am to have really smart and well-read people to share that.

Frankly, it’s just hard to pursue many passions if they pull you in directions that all require significant time to do as well as you would wish. The curse of a pervasive curiosity that kills cats as they say.


Eszter Hargittai 10.27.18 at 6:54 am

Alan (if I may), as I mentioned in my post, I do organize a book club and it helps, but I don’t think it’s enough. It’s too hard to coordinate them with colleagues so I don’t think adding more sessions will work although I guess in theory I could and then just see if anyone shows up. But it won’t keep me motivated too long if people do not.


Doug 10.27.18 at 7:07 am

Szia Eszter! Erik Loomis, a historian who blogs at Lawyers Guns & Money (on the off chance you don’t know him/his online work) has said that he carves out time for a chapter a day from an academic book. If I recall correctly, that’s for stuff not directly related to his research. That strikes me as a good way to sample a wide range of things that you may not need immediately, and it gives you some basis for knowing what you may wish to come back to.

I don’t recall him saying anything specific about how he carved out that time each day. Maybe at the beginning, as something of a warm-up? It also occurs to me that giving himself explicit permission to stop after a chapter helps, because it keeps the task to a manageable size.


Eszter Hargittai 10.27.18 at 7:52 am

Szia Doug! Köszi. I like the idea of doing it in chapter chunks. Then it is indeed no more (and possibly even less) than a journal article so definitely realistic to fit in. I’ve thought about when during the day it would work. Mornings are my best writing time so I would likely carve out time for this in the afternoon.


Z 10.27.18 at 8:51 am

Ah! Reading academic books not directly (or at all) related to my research is I think the one single aspect of my academic life I think I’m reliably reasonably successful at. If I’m to be honest, this means that people should probably think twice before following any advice I have to give.

So what do I do? I keep at least one book (but usually two or three) with me at all time, so that I can read in otherwise vacuous stretches of time (commutes, waiting for appointments, the five minutes before the school gates open when I pick up my kids, the line at the farmers market, stuff like that… admittedly these are not structured stretch of times exactly though depending on how your typical day goes, you may be able to fit reliably about one hour a day of these; on the other hand super-organized people might not be able to find any such time at all). I read in bed at night before going to sleep (about 30 minutes a day every other day on average, but you indicated that you reserve this time slot for other readings). Finally, I spend one afternoon a week in a public library (2 to 3 hours, typically). These last 2 years, I have informally tracked my average reading habits, and all in all the above translated into about 6 academic books picked up at the library a month, out of which I actually read 3 to 4. So about 40 a years all in all in the end, provided I can find enough that kindle my interests (usually, not a problem).

Compared to what you said about yourself, the only real difference then is that I do actually plan for a weekly significant chunk of time during the working week in which I read academic things but usually with zero relation to my actual work. As I said in my preliminary remark, whether one should emulate this behavior of mine is debatable.


Eszter Hargittai 10.27.18 at 8:55 am

Z :) – About 40 a year sounds fantastic! I’m not good with 5-10-min chunks for this kind of reading so it’s looking like weekly structured dedicated time may be the way to go for me.


engels 10.27.18 at 11:20 am

A bit tangential but in case any #entrepreneurs are reading, could someone please design and produce a mobile phone with a Kindle screen. This would mean I could read books on the go, à la Z, which I do struggle to do because I don’t like carrying them around, and also prevent me wasting so much time on Twitter, blogs, etc.

Very envious of the chaise longue!


John Garrett 10.27.18 at 1:23 pm

The issue for me isn’t when to read, it’s when to think. Without slow, silent thinking — sometimes called meditation — how do we have any idea what matters, if anything? And if we only or mostly read in our narrow field, or books by friends, how do we ever learn anything that transforms us?


Eszter Hargittai 10.27.18 at 1:35 pm

John, I do that when I’m commuting – sitting on a train or driving a car, depending on location. Or when I go for walks. And definitely on flights. I do a lot of thinking on flights.


Neville Morley 10.27.18 at 8:15 pm

There are too many books; there is too little time. I’m in a field where books are still important, and could easily list a dozen or so that I really should have read several years ago because they’re potentially essential, just in that field, let alone work in relevant adjacent fields. I rather wish there was more emphasis on articles…


Alan White 10.27.18 at 8:35 pm

Eszter–I’m sorry I wasn’t more helpful–but I wanted (i) to recognize that your problem is a serious one for as dedicated an academic as you are, (ii) encourage you to continue to seek a like-minded and stable book group as part of a solution, and (iii) just to commiserate. Hope I didn’t come off as snotty and self-absorbed like some presidents I know–certainly not my intention.

As I read the comments I realized that one strategy mentioned (Doug’s) is one I practiced for most of my career–for me a chapter or two a week for more dense work. Besides, I’m a slow reader, and I don’t think I’ve ever finished a book in one sitting as many people have. (Well, maybe The Cat in the Hat way back when.)


Eszter Hargittai 10.27.18 at 9:32 pm

Alan, no offense taken whatsoever. I appreciate commiseration! Like you, I can’t read a book in one sitting either, not the types I’m talking about. So yes, I already approach book reading in chunks. The idea of sitting down with the plan of only reading a relatively small section may help with that initial barrier of even sitting down to start when otherwise feeling hopeless that I won’t make much progress with it anyway and then not sitting down at all.


Plarry 10.27.18 at 10:50 pm

This is not so much about books, but maybe by using the chapter idea mentioned earlier it could be. Very little research relevant to my work appears in books, so I don’t worry about them. What I worry about is trying to keep up with all the journal articles in areas only slightly tangential to my own. The way we do that within my group is with an organized list — we use Trello but there are likely any number of tools that are as good or better — that gets added to as we do literature reviews for new papers and grants that we’re writing. Then, in group meeting, we treat the trello list as a backlog and sprint away at it, to whittle it down. Of course, it never ends but it more or less works.


Omega Centauri 10.28.18 at 2:24 am

I’m not an academic, but work in an area with almost all PhD’s, (I had an all-but-dissertation 40 years back), and its not really in my field. But I’m retirement age, so I just soldier on knowing I
can get by with reading what I want, not what will advance my job. But, I can readily sympathize.

For me the biggest chunk of reading is during car charging. I can get a free charge, and its two blocks from the brand new public library, so I feel that killing a couple of hours is called for. Of course the kids are grown up, so there isn’t that much to do at home -at least on the weekends.


JakeB 10.28.18 at 5:27 am

For me, what seems to work best, if there’s a book I really want to (at least try to) read (and that I can’t justify as part of the work day ), I add it to my to-do list for the day, along the lines of “read 30 pages of Cyberwar”. If it turns out a chapter is 32 pages or 25 pages, I might stop at such a natural ending, or otherwise just stop at the end of a paragraph.

But it’s the case for me generally, the best way to get something done is to continue to do it regularly, even in exceedingly small segments. Otherwise it’s too overwhelming to get started. FWIW. Many conversations with colleagues and friends about this (and other similar questions, like making time for fitness, meditation, and the like) suggest that I may be willing to settle for much more marginal progress than they are!


Eszter Hargittai 10.28.18 at 6:28 am

OC – Almost all of this reading is just because I want to do it, not because I am required to do it for my work. It’s related to work, but it’s not something I must read. This is partly what may make it harder to squeeze in.

JakeB – I definitely take that approach when it comes to writing where I try to follow the 5-5-5 approach, which is 500 words written or five pages edited five days a week. So I’m all for incremental progress, I just hadn’t thought to apply it to book reading.


Joe 10.28.18 at 7:36 pm

Possibly of interest: Princeton UP has started producing audio books:
Some public libraries even provide access to some titles through their digital collections.

Switching freely between audio and other formats of the same book can also be good, on the theory that the relatively small mental effort may make things stick more (maybe?).


John Quiggin 10.29.18 at 1:20 am

Hi Eszter. Trivially obvious, but watching less (or no) TV frees time for other activity. However, blogging chews up most of that for me, so I am well behind on my reading. Having finished my own book, I’ve ordered a bunch I plan to read soon

I like the 5-5-5 approach, though I don’t spend as much time on editing as you do and as I probably should. An important feature of it, for me, is accumulated debt – if I don’t do my 500 words on Monday, the shortfall is added to the target for Tuesday, and so on.


Bill Benzon 10.29.18 at 11:43 am

Yes to thinking while walking, driving, or flying (which I seldom do).


sy 10.29.18 at 4:06 pm

One approach is the idea that if you have a reason to do something the when and how will take care of itself. Three ways that I give myself reasons to read academic books that aren’t directly related to my research are 1) assign them in my classes (this usually just works for chapters though occasionally you can assign a whole book), 2) offer to review them somewhere that’s not too choosy about reviewers (your own blog may or may not be sufficient motivation), and 3) read the work of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and people visiting my college to talk. You can motivate yourself by the prospect of seeing or hearing the person in question.


Matt 10.29.18 at 9:12 pm

I read a lot of stuff like this while walking. I typically walk at least 20 minutes a day, often quite a bit more, just getting around and doing things I need to do – not walking specifically for its own sake or primarily for exercise or the like – and if it’s not raining, I’ll read while walking at least half of the time, probably more. Sometimes I’ll read things I need to read while walking, but I usually try to use that time for reading stuff I just want to read – sometimes literature, but often books either from fields other than my own or just outside my current research. (Most of the places I’m walking when I read are not super crowded. It’s hard to do this on, say, a busy down-town side walk.)


Patrick Fessenbecker 10.30.18 at 6:37 am

Let me warmly recommend Joe’s point at 17 — audio versions of academic books are GREAT, and a magnificent way to keep up with really popular and influential stuff in other fields, as well as older/classic stuff that you didn’t get to in grad school. In the last year I’ve gotten through about a dozen books, including Christopher Clark’s “Sleepwalkers” and MacIntyre’s “After Virtue,” and I’m in the middle of Eric Foner’s history of reconstruction now (I’m in literary studies, so all this is athwart my field). I try to have an audio book with me all the time, so washing dishes or walking or exercising or whatever can be “reading.” It also cultivates a different relationship with the book: since it’s impossible to take notes, you end up letting go of that part of your reading habits, and instead just remembering interesting details and trying to get ahold of the overall argument.

It would be great if we could help create a market for these books, too–right now it’s mainly history books that get audio versions, and I would love audio versions for new and classic work in philosophy/literary studies.

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