Virgin's Guide to Burning Man

A Virgin's Guide to Burning Man can be found here.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Grad School Killed the Lit'rary Star

I have lost my ability to read, and I blame grad school entirely. I no longer read. Ever. I skim. It actually takes a concerted effort to really read, and even then, halfway through I forget and skip a few lines.

I've always loved great literature and language that transports and inspires. But grad school quickly knocked that notion out of me. My first quarter I had to get through 600 pages a week, on top of 3 3-hour seminars, papers, presentations, a readership, and a 25-hour a week job - a perhaps an emotional breakdown or two. And those are 600 academic pages, mind you. Not Harry Potter. Six hundred pages of fiction I can get through in a matter of hours. I challenge any non-academic to try reading Moravcsik with any kind of efficiency and get his argument on the first read. Or Skowronek. Brilliant scholar he may be, but Lord, he cannot write.

The only way to survive graduate school is to learn to skim, and skim so well you can get through an article in minutes, and a book in less than an hour and have the main argument. I don't think any scholar (in my field at least) ever reads an entire book.

But while this is a handy skill in grad school, it means the rest of my reading suffers. I just finished getting through two very similar books: Possession, by A.S. Byatt, and The Rossetti Letter, by Christi Phillips. Both books are about scholars stumbling across some historical artifact that changes our understanding of history and follows two simultaneous storylines: that of the scholars, and that of the lovers in history. And by far, I enjoyed The Rossetti Letter, not because it was a better book, but because I was more entertained. The plot-literary moment balance was skewed more in favor of the plot, and so I stuck with the book more. Possession had great swaths of text that contained no plot, and I jumped over whole passages, waiting to get to the interesting part. And my reading of the book suffered for it, I'm sure. I should probably go back and re-read it and pay it the attention that it is due.

But honestly, I don't have time. If I'm going to stick with a book these days, it has to compel me. Which is sad, because I miss savoring books. Instead, I devour them. And leave crumbs all over the table.


  1. haha! I just saw your twitter, I too have "Video Killed the Radio Star" playing in my head!

    This post baffles me and also impresses me. I for the life of me can't skim. I study mostly human biochemistry. I think it would actually be much harder to skim your material. At least with the human body we sorta know already what to expect.

    In any case, do you have any words of wisdom you'd like to impart??

  2. That's a funny coincidence!
    Hmm... it could be that the fields are different; I would think human biochemistry would be really hard to skim. We're mostly concerned with the main arguments and perhaps a little bit with the methodology the researcher used. So for our purposes, we don't really need to know the nitty-gritty details unless we're looking for ways to challenge the work. Articles and books generally follow a basic format. I pretty much just read the introduction and conclusion, and if I can't get the argument from that, then I'll read a bit more. If I have to read a bit more, I guess I scan quickly for key words like "this chapter argues" or "we argue" or any synonym for argument. And I jump to first and last sentences of paragraphs. If I see something that looks important, I'll stop to read it more carefully. If it doesn't look crucial, I'll move on.

    I hope that helps! I've never taken a class on skimming or anything like that. This is just my process, but hopefully you find it helpful too.

  3. Um, I'm glad you enjoyed the Rossetti Letter but I gave that to you on know as in 4 1/2 days ago. You aren't kidding that you can read fast!!

  4. Haha...well I started it on Monday while I was waiting for Toby to finish working and kind of got engrossed. So when we got home, I started it up again...and then stayed up until 4 a.m. to finish it, because, yes, I am insane.

  5. Jade, that is very helpful. I think that's a great place to start. I'll use that technique and see if it makes the things I'm studying any easier.


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