Emery Marc Petchauer

Emery Marc Petchauer

Reading Habits, Reading Plans

A friend asked:

Do you have a reading practice and a time and place you do it in?? Gathering data. Need to reinvent my approach. Seems like you pick books to read in advance.

I had a hard time coming up with an answer, so I figured I’d write my way through it.

The first question is easy. I read in the evenings in the place of TV (or not) and sitting on a couch or chair. I need a pen and some sticky notes nearby too. I’m not a bed or bedroom reader. Never fallen asleep with a book in bed in my life. Can’t really read outside either, and definitely not in the sun. Once a month if I can swing it, I might block off a day and try to read most of the day. It’s 75% because I want to and know I’ll feel refreshed afterwards, and 25% because I want to rebuild my reading stamina eroded by social media and work. I don’t know if this matters, but as a kid or teenager, I never read books without someone else making me. I was outside doing something sweaty and not inside reading something interesting. I was an unlikely English major come college. I chose it because I had a philosophy class at the same time as a British literature class, and it felt like the literature class was philosophy in stories, and that was cool. Plus I figured all of the material would be new to me since I didn’t ready much on my own prior to college.

The second question is more complicated. I’ve never planned out a year of reading in advance, and I’m not one of the people who keeps track of the books they read in a year, ticking them off at the last page. I know some people who do: the guy who decided to read only Big Books this year so he might become okay not finishing books; or the other person going hard with Black speculative fiction this year. I’ve had the impulse to do something like that – wondering what it might afford – but never followed through on it because I am too easily swayed by what books I hear other people talking about on a podcast, on Twitter, or in my RSS feed. (More on RSS feed in a minute). Last year I heard two people on a podcast talking about José Saramago’s Blindness. I hadn’t set out to read pandemic fiction in an actual pandemic, but I had to grab it and read it because of the way they talked about it. Wow. Or, I work with some people who do scholarship in this interesting corner of literary studies called distant reading. I had never heard of it, so I read a book that traces that field’s development, and it got me wondering if there can be a kind of “distant listening” in hip-hop studies or ethnomusicology. Or I saw people tweeting about Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino, so I read it, and it had me thinking of all the ways the white supremacist narrative used to cover that lie mapped out onto the school district next door to me and its narrative to dissolve the “alternative” school where they had funneled many of the African American students in the district. The books that end up staying with me over a year usually come from indirect recommendations from other people.

I should say this too: the separation between what I read for “work” and what I read for “me” has never, ever been clear. Sometimes I think it is clear, but then it turns out it’s not. For instance: I read Carol Levine’s Forms: Rhythm, Network, Hierarchy, Whole only because it looked interesting by title. But then the heuristic she outlines got in my head for two years — it’s so elegant, so useful. I saw it everywhere I looked. I tried to write it into an academic piece because it was so compelling – that didn’t work – but now it’s all up in a funded grant my colleague Ruth Nicole Brown and I wrote. So I guess it did turn out to be “for work.” Who knew.

I’ve tried in the past two years to be less swayed by what I see other people reading, which might afford me more intentionality. I tried by spending less time on Twitter where I’m encountering what articles and books people are sharing and, instead, starting an RSS feed (Feedly) to discover things to read. I think this has helped, and I know there is now an extra layer of thinking where I ask myself, “You you really want to read this now? Or should you save it for later?” before I open another book. I now set some aside for later, or just throw it up on my pinboard and rest assured I know where it is.