On Reclaiming Scholarly Time and Space: Or, Keep Calm and Read On

Here’s something I keep thinking about, during this summer where quite essentially my only job is to sit down and read. My PhD exams are coming up this year, and I’m currently carving out a schedule of sitting down each morning and trying to make it through a lengthy list of texts from the American literary canon (as well as many substantial works of theory relating to disability and deaf studies). Each day is starting to unfold in a similar way: wake up, putter around a bit on email and read the news, then put it all aside and open a new book and plow through a couple of hundred pages of prose, poetry, criticism, what have you. Do some writing as I have the chance. Close the books and do it all over again the next day.

So, I sit down in the company of my books, and I think: here I am, absorbing myself in a torrent of words, sitting in silence with these ideas that past authors have honed and worked to express, for hours on end. And then I can’t help but also think: this skill set I’m exercising and cultivating, not only during this grand summer of reading but also during my entire PhD (and, let’s face it, other life and professional pursuits ahead), is absolutely antithetical to the frenetic, fragmented pace and rhythm of the rest of modern life. What I’m trying to do is the opposite of reading (and/or responding to) a tweet, a text message, a meme, a quick gratuitous email, one of those “breaking news” headline notifications that pops up on my phone every couple of hours. It’s even the opposite of what I’m writing on this short blog right now, when you think about it. (Writing 1000-word blog posts, I admit, can be another form of of self-gratification, when you think about the far harder and more focused labor inherent to other kinds of reading and writing. Guilty as charged.) It requires time, space, patience, solitude, quiet, a place to sit without rush or anxiety and just focus and breathe.

This type of reading can be hard. It doesn’t stimulate any kind of contemporary reward system, beyond the absorbing pleasure of the words and ideas themselves. There’s no instant gratification in it, of the type that stimulates reading other types of media: Wow, another page down! Wasn’t that great? Now only 499 left to go! It becomes easy, at times, to feel lost in the sea of American literature and American thought: I just read this one book today, and there was so much in it, but now look at everything else I haven’t yet read. Thinking of it in terms of speed, or rapid accumulation or accomplishment, becomes counterproductive. Rather, I need to find the kind of groundedness in myself to put my head down, to become absorbed in the words on the page, to lose myself and the transient, flurried, distracted modern world in these lines upon lines of prose (or poetry), and attempt to do it all entirely for its own sake, or for the sake of the larger ideas I might tease out or engage with someday. With some authors, it’s easier for me to do that than with others. And I’ll also confess how susceptible I, as much as anyone else, can be to the pleasing distractions and fleeting tasks and activities that define the fast-shifting pace of today’s world.

This summer of reading is forcing me out of that rhythm, even more than any of my previous coursework pursuits ever have. The days spent only with books are making me think more about the long labor of cultivating patience, and focus, and discipline. They are making me think about the kind of mental clarity it takes to absorb oneself singlemindedly in an idea, a pursuit, or even just a long, well-crafted story. The act of prolonged reading is something I’ve always enjoyed, but now learning to do it well and to do it critically, thoughtfully, over long periods of completely self-directed time (when there are so many other things potentially clamoring for my attention) is literally my job. It’s a task that will bear fruit only with a lot of time – far more time than I have in a summer, or in even a couple of years. The human desire to know, to become, isn’t something that can be immediately satiated, for all of our desire after epiphany and self-gratification, and this slow wisdom lies at the core of doing a PhD. Rather, acquiring any rich body of knowledge involves a gradual accumulation of thoughtful time and energy, something that earlier eras have accomplished better than we have. I’m thinking not only of monks laboring for their lifetimes over precise illuminated manuscripts, but also of earlier and less interconnected eras when reading itself was more of a quiet, solitary, removed pursuit. Now, in order to seek that kind of absorption and solitude for myself, I have to actively make sure I’m less connected than normal before I begin: I put aside my phone, shut off my computer, lock myself away in a place I think there won’t be any distractions. Then I stay there for a long time, longer than feels normal to me at this point, and maybe eventually come out. Not to exaggerate, but this pursuit of redefining time and space in my own terms feels like a radical act in 2017.

This summer, my task is to put one foot in front of another, with the faith that I’ll one day reach the top of the mountain, or something close to it, even though I can by no means see those heights yet (and can anyone ever reach the top of the literary mountain, anyway? it keeps on going up). My task is to “keep calm and read on,” or some other obnoxious twist on that British meme. And my task is to sip tea until it becomes cold, and then just boil some water again, and keep turning the pages and reading the words. It all adds up. Certainly not instantly, certainly not with a flash or bright pulsating notification, but the time passes and grows and expands upon itself all the same. Here's to rewiring my brain to embrace more of that slow, deep, self-sustained focus. And, with that, signing off... back to my reading hermitage.