Reading and Transformation

Originally published in the Scotsman.

I love to read. It always seems like there’s too many books and too little time – but when I started my PhD, I thought this problem would be resolved, at least for the first year. What an enormous privilege: an entire year devoted almost exclusively to reading. It sounded like heaven on earth. I thought it would be my chance for an extended book binge, the likes of which I haven’t had since I was a young teenager.

Sadly, my fantasies of endless bibliographies and blissful days of relaxed reading have been far from reality. Because I’m trying to connect so many different elements, it takes an absurd amount of time to get through each. Spending an entire day on one chapter of a book is not unusual, and as the months go by, the process seems to become ever slower.

A large part of the slowness comes from necessary note-taking. In the past, I never had to study for exams and rarely had to write much down. But the scope of a PhD has demanded I learn a new style of reading and study. I can’t trust my memory to hold dozens of books for years at a time, especially when their subject matter is so broad. For the first time in my life, I have to take detailed notes on what I read, and it’s been a steep learning curve to find a method that works for me. In this, I feel I’m trailing behind any average high school student, for whom note-taking is second nature.

Choosing what to note and what to leave out requires a strict focus and constant consideration of purpose. That something is interesting is not enough reason to copy it down: it must be relevant. For every sentence I read, I have to keep in mind my wider project and how each particular piece will fit. It’s very different from the experience of casual or light intellectual reading, where it’s easy to become “lost” in someone else’s ideas. Despite frequent temptation, I can’t allow myself to lose sight of my analytical purpose.

This continuous return to central questions has brought a considerable deepening. Often I’ll read a page or two, then stop to think about how the new ideas relate to others I’ve encountered in the process. Patterns emerge, and I can spend nearly as much time scribbling down thoughts as actually reading. It’s a constantly shifting picture I’m trying to discern, and each new piece affects the whole.

As with most PhD students, this is the first project of any scope I’ve ever undertaken. Nine months into the process, and I’m experiencing a strange sensation, one I can’t easily put into words. I can feel something changing about the way I think, the way my brain processes information. It’s uncanny and uncomfortable and disconcerting. Juggling so many ideas within a strict focus is not only strengthening my mental muscles, it’s changing their shape.

I can see the point of a formal PhD now, I can see why it’s different than simply reading lots of books at random. The structure of university requirements and the guidance of my supervisors has forced me to maintain a focus I would have otherwise lost months ago. In turn, that focus has reshaped the way I integrate new material into my project – crucial preparation for next year, when I will be trying to make sense of interviews.

I thought a year would be plenty of reading time, but with the end of that year in sight, my bibliography seems pathetically short. Too many books, too little time.

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