The overwhelming body of written stuff [I want to read]

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 My curiosity often seems fairly boundless to me.  There are so many things I want to explore and I never will have time to read even a quarter of it.  My interests are pretty wide: various fields of science, current events, virtually every location and era of history, and countless tales, fables, stories, and poems all fascinate me.  Every day could be filled with reading the various articles of interest from my Twitter feed alone.  I could very literally spend an entire day reading through it.

It would help if I read faster than I do–it would have helped in grad school, too.  But, puzzlingly, I am not particularly speedy when reading the written word.  Sometimes I get bogged down in hard thinking over the reading, or thumbing through the filing cabinet of my brain seeking a dialogue with some other text (or several) that my current subject provokes.  That latter scenario is often when additional texts, articles and notes start piling up around me at my desk and next to the couch, on the night stand and on the already stocked shelves an arm’s length from my side of the bed.  The former scenario usually leads to mad scribbling in various journals–maybe its the journal I use for possible projects, maybe its the more personal journal in which I record my more personal thoughts.

This extensive curiosity is one major reason why I stopped at the Masters of Arts in history, unsure of how to proceed to a dissertation that would focus my energies  for a number of years on one particular problem–completion of my Ph.D. seemed unlikely to occur in an acceptable time period.  It is also why freelancing was so appealing, I could work on longer projects that require long-term focus, but pick up smaller projects of other interests along the way.  Ideal really.  (Homeschooling my daughter has ended up filling in most of those smaller projects for the time being, but we don’t plan on homeschooling her for college, too.)

Another challenge I have is the cultural literacy I have developed that has given me access to many stories despite the fact that  I haven’t read all of them.  To this day, I cannot remember if I have read Romeo and Juliet in its entirety, from start to finish, or if I have only read various excerpts and seen it a hundred times in a hundred ways–I can probably quote more lines from it than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, but I am still not certain I ever read it.  I still haven’t seen Hitchcock’s Pyscho on a related note, because I already know the plot and have seen the most famous scenes from the movie.  It’s not my intention to avoid these classics–quite the opposite I assure you–but it is difficult to prioritize my reading when there is such a long list and such tall piles waiting for me.

Antique book with German text

When it is time to start a new book or story, I often suffer from option paralysis because the stacks are so many.  Not only that, but I often try to “schedule” reading certain books before others when I know that there is an open dialogue between texts A and B, and the author of B largely relies upon the fact that I, the reader, have already read A.  Plus, there is the self-experienced truism that many of the greatest works offer something more in each new reading, and I hate not returning to the great works.

It really isn’t a bad problem to have, but sometimes I get a little depressed when I consider just how few of the many books, articles and papers I want to read will actually be read.  As a historian, my work is reading and writing.  I just finished explaining to my students in the 101 history course I am teaching this semester that a historian wants to consult as many sources as possible to engage a particular event and really understand and interpret it.  This is much easier to say in a 101 course, for which we have so comparatively few sources and the authors’ existing canon is fairly limited and well-known by comparison with the early modern era and the increasing proliferation of sources, expanding with increased literacy and technology.  Even comparing a research project of the American Revolution with one of the Norman Conquest reveals a laughable gap in the available sources, though knowledge of Latin is far less necessary for the Americans.

This holiday season, I will be traveling–hours in a car and in a plane mean I will get some reading done, but not a ton.  It also means I will, much to my pleasure, acquire more than a handful of new reading materials, both as gifts for the holidays and as the result of my travels.  In other words, my list will only grow.  That’s ok.  If nothing else, it means I should never be bored, and I always have something to look forward to as  I get tied up in one project or another, building book castles all around my abode.  Although, I will always be grateful that I live in the 21st century and am thus not likely to become a historian of the era and all the many, many multi-media sources it will produce!

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2 Comments

Filed under Historian's Journal

2 responses to “The overwhelming body of written stuff [I want to read]

  1. Jay

    Trust me, being a fast reader doesn’t assuage these difficulties. It’s like traveling at the speed of a car versus the speed of light when your aim is to reach the end of the universe – still frustratingly impossible.

    There are ways to help you go quicker, though, or at least to make some headway. Buying books on tape makes reading very convenient; listen in the car, while jogging, while answering email, during dinner with the family… however you want. Though not quite as easy as audio, a kindle or some variation thereof also makes reading a bit more practical. Though I’m a traditionalist, and I rage at kindle typos and mourn the loss of page turning with audio books, both are useful when you’re struggling to get through this year’s reading list.

    • Mathematically, I can’t conceive of any speed that would allow me to read everything I want to read, though I also feel a little more efficiency would put me in a better position. Regardless, the point remains there is just too much out there, centuries of material and more every day! Needless to say, it isn’t hard for me to pass up TV evenings for time with novels, plays, graphic novels, or comics.

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