In the first year of my PhD I really struggled to read fiction, or other books unrelated to my PhD subject. This is a common complaint amongst researchers: you either get guilt that you should be reading something work related, or you are so tired from reading all day that you lose the ability to focus when finally reading something for fun, and/or fall asleep. In this blog post I wanted to talk about the importance of making time for reading the books that you love – no matter how unrelated they are to your PhD subject – and how helpful they can be without you even realising.
If most readers of this blog are indeed arts and humanities PhD researchers I think it is pretty safe to say that we all LOVE books. I, for example, have ‘eaten’ books as long as I could read, am completely unable to control myself in second-hand book shops, and have out of control ‘to-read’ piles by my bed, by my desk and on top of my bookshelves. These piles went totally rogue in the first year of my PhD, when I just couldn’t quite find the time or the focus to make any headway with them. Then, at the start of 2016, I made the bold New Year’s Resolution to read one piece of fiction every month for the year. I should say now that I did not achieve this goal, but in the first few months I remembered how much I get from reading the books I love, and not only reading because I have to.
In the 16 months since I have probably not read 16 works of fiction, but I have read more than I did in the first equivalent period of my PhD. I made some progress in my mission to read every book published by the wonderful Persephone Books.While on holiday last autumn I read and then swiftly re-read the wonderful Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico. I read the debut novel of an old school friend and enjoyed recognising the people and places of my teenage years. I got to see my writing hero Margaret Atwood speak, and devoured her latest dystopian novel The Heart Goes Last. I interspersed writing sessions with snippets from Kirsty Logan’s wonderful collection of stories, A Portable Shelter. And I re-visted old favourites when I needed calm and comfort: Harry Potter, I Capture the Castle, and The Travelling Hornplayer. I do not need to tell you that books are the perfect escape from reality; more absorbing than any radio show or podcast, and more transporting than any television programme or film. Because we all read differently, and we all create the worlds we want to see in our own minds, and that, is magical.
But aside from the true magic of books as a means of transportation into another life or another world, they can also make us better researchers. Even when they seem completely unrelated to our research, books can feed our minds, fuel our creativity, and inspire us to write. I can spend all day tying myself up in knots about a particular question within my research, only to find the answer pop into my head that evening while re-reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day for the third or fourth time. There is just something about the narrative form combined with the relaxation of reading that I find so beneficial when my brain is stuck on a problem. I’m sure there is some science involved here, but this is an arts and humanities blog and I am not going down that wormhole.
There are also those books (whether fictional or any other non-academic form) with a more direct or tangental relationship to our research. You can read them and call it work if you need to, and can enjoy drawing parallels even if you know that the book will never make it into your thesis. Or perhaps they help you to break down a problem or explore a theme in simpler language. I find great inspiration in works of fiction that address women’s relationship with clothing; I can’t reference them all, but they help me to think more deeply and draw more dynamic conclusions. I have also re-visited Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes countless times when I need reminding of the sheer power of objects as vessels for storytelling. In fact that book is one of the reasons I am doing this PhD, but that is another story.
So despite the endless admin, the extra jobs, and the seemingly impossible task of finishing the thesis, I am going to make myself keep reading fiction throughout the rest of my PhD. Even if I have been work-reading all day and picking up another book is the last thing I feel like doing. (Next on my to-read pile is Margaret Atwood’s re-working of the Tempest, Hag-Seed.) I know lots of you will be doing the same: happy reading!