I just came across this exchange in response to a post on Progressive Geographies that contained an image of ‘books received‘:
Your books received posts always make me think of how much one in a field such as yours is required to read and is wanting to read to keep up with recent development and now I am finally asking: Do you read all the books you received until the next books received post? If so, do you think this is a lot of books in comparison to others you know? What would you say is a “normal” or needed threshold to keep up? I am always anxious that I am not doing enough, that’s why I’m asking.
Stuart Elden responds:
I haven’t read every book I own, but I do read most of them fairly soon after buying/receiving them, and usually keep those unread on specific shelves to work through. I often get hold of books in advance of a project – so the Gottmann ones for a small piece I’m writing on him; Sartre for an idea I have that I may or may not develop; Hegel for a possible collaborative project. So this means when I do come to the project I already have a stack of available things to read. But I see book buying as building up a working library too – not just of books read once and then filed, but books I have to refer to when writing pieces or lectures.
As to how much reading is enough, that’s hard to answer. One good indicator I’ve found is when reading on a topic to look at the bibliographies of things you’ve read. At the beginning of research on a topic there will be loads of related pieces you’ll think you should read. As you move through the reading, you’ll begin to look at bibliographies and realise you’ve already read, or looked at, the things in there. That’s when you start to feel on top of the literature. I think I do read a lot compared to many people, but there are always things others have read I haven’t, and there is so much out there, especially given the range of things I’m interested in.
Hope that helps a bit.
I thought this exchange was interesting for a few reasons. The above question is about the volume of stuff we should read in order to keep up to date with the area we are interested in. The suggestion here is that the requirements of reading vary a bit between disciplines and between topics. With some research interests bringing with them a higher level of required reading. The more eclectic or open the research interests the more there is to read. But also the volume of work that is published in some areas makes keeping up more of a challenge. I’ve been editing the review section at Information, Communication & Society for just under a year, but I’ve already seen that it would be impossible for an individual to keep up with the growing literature covered by the journal. Plus on top of the books there are piles of journal articles across a number of journals. The difficulty is often finding the reading that is most important.
The other thing that comes out of the above exchange concerns the way that reading fits into the research process. In Stuart response he shows how reading is an active part of the formation of ideas. With some reading being done to see if a particular idea might work. Or some books being obtained because it is an area that might be developed. It is this kind of exploratory reading, used to simply explore new ground or new ideas with particular instrumental aim, that I find I have limited time for. Often I end up reading materials that fit around a particular bit of writing I’m doing. I’m still trying to do some exploratory type reading when I can. I’ve found in the past that unexpected connections and new ideas emerge when I do this. I’ve been trying to keep up to date with some of the materials on neoliberalism for example. I also read Sloterdijk’s Bubbles just out of curiosity. Both of these ended up finding their way into my book. Sloterdijk in particular ended up taking quite a bit of attention in a chapter i did on the body. So it’s tough to find space for reading that isn’t instrumental, but I’m pretty sure it helps to open-up new perspectives for me. I’m currently reading Les Back and Nirmal Puwar’s Live Methods to see what ideas I can find. I’ve also had an idea from scanning through Jamie Peck’s recent work on Austerity Urbanism, so I’m hoping to develop that too (the video of this talk is here). Exploratory non-instrumental reading seems like a luxury in the current context (see here Roger Burrows talking on Living With the H-Index and here is the written version), but it’s worth protecting if it opens up new ideas and keeps my work fresh. Even if I does sometimes lead to reading with no actual outcomes.