Reading Habits

I found my answers to these questions from the “I read that once …” and “A Room of One’s Own” blogs bit of surprise. They suggest that for me reading is not the casual, relaxing activity I thought it was, but rather something that requires attention, focus and energy.

Mise en scène

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack. What is your favorite drink while reading? Do you have a favorite time/place to read? How do you organize your books? (by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.) 

I do typically eat while I am reading. I try very hard to focus on what I am reading. If I am eating and reading at the same time I will read things like magazines, newspapers, brochures or the Internet. I hadn’t realized this before but in my mind I don’t think of this as reading but as a type of administrative task However, when reading, I tend to drink a great deal of iced tea and often, to keep alert and focused, either hot or iced coffee.

I read almost every night, after everyone else has gone to bed and is sleeping. It is quiet and I can put my full attention (what is left of it) into concentrating on what I am reading. I used to relish spending the whole day at a University library where I would read entire books, straight through in a single sitting, that would be otherwise unavailable to me.

At home my books are organized by genre. Then they are further organized by subgenre, chronology, geography or alphabetical by author’s last name. I find the organization of my books in many ways reflects and enforces a certain way of thinking about them. E.g., Literature>Russian>Poetry>Acmeism or Philosophy>Continental>Frankfurt School.


How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?  Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere? If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?
I use bookmarks.

The idea of writing or marking in books horrifies me. There are two reasons for this. One is rational and practical and the other visceral and emotional. The emotional reason is that from a very young age I was taught to have great respect, almost reverence, for books. Not just their contents but their physical properties as well. It borders on the level of disorder but then Jacques Lacan tells me I should “Enjoy my Symptom!”

The rational reason is good but I realize may just be a rationalization of emotional reason. Each time a read a book, and most of the best books are worth rereading, I want to approach it with fresh eyes and a new perspective. I’m a different person from when I read it last and I don’t want to be unduly influenced by my previous impressions. If I can confine my writing to computer files they can be organized, catalogued, copied and reused easily and the book remains open to inspiring new ideas and interpretations when I return to it.

Structure is important to my understanding of a book. If I had my choice and it were practical to do so, I would read every book through without stopping until I have reached the final page. There is a great advantage to reading that way. You can see the book as a whole. The beginning is still clear in your mind while reading the conclusion. You can always return to clarify an idea or have a deeper appreciation of a particular scene, but your understanding is improved by knowing its relation to the larger structure. Of course this isn’t always possible so I read to the next largest structural unit—typically chapter endings. If a person stops reading at random places in a book it breaks the train of though and can hinder clear understanding. As a result I will only rarely stop to look up unfamiliar words because I do not want to loose the train of thought. More likely I will write it down and look it up later unless it hinders my understanding of the overall argument.


Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you? Fiction, non-fiction, or both? Do you prefer series books or stand alones? What are you currently reading? What is the last book you bought? Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over? 

Clearly, I am not the type of person to throw a book across the room. But I have little patience for a writer wasting my time. If I find a book is sloppily written or researched I will quickly set it down and move on to better things. Of course, my preference is avoid reading books like that in the first place. As I have less and less time to read I spend more and more time researching and evaluating books before I read them.

I seem to be drawn to non-fiction particularly history, philosophy and biography along with math, science and general non-fiction. For fiction I tend to stick with classics, both prose and poetry.

I tend to read books in clusters—around a single topic, idea or person. Just as I am concerned with the internal structure of a book, I am also interested in how the book fits into the context of its time and place. By reading all or many representative works by an author you get a sense of how he grows and develops. There is often a “plotline” or trajectory to an author’s oeuvre. There is also much to be learned by reading works of a similar time or type. You can see how ideas or styles developed and how writers have influenced and reacted to each other.

At the moment I am interested in the development of post-civil war American philosophy so my reading revolves around that idea and includes: C. S. Peirce’s Selected Philosophical Writings Vol. 1 & 2, Oliver Wendell HolmesTouched with Fire, Robert Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, William James’ The Will to Believe, and Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club.

Likewise the books I have most recently purchased are simarly related to this project: Oliver Wendell Holmes-The Essential Holmes, Bruce Kuklick-The Rise of American Philosophy: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1860-1930, and George Fredrickson-The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union.

There are many books and writers that I return to again and again and often talk about and recommend to others. Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe and Tolstoy top the list. The monumental works Mahabharata, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War are frequent topics of reflection and conversation. Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation and Parerga and Paralipomena offer many delightful parables and insightful commentaries. Also, I often find myself reading, contemplating, discussing—and even comparing—two recent historians: one from my former home in Boston—David Hackett Fisher, and one from my current home in Richmond—Douglas Southall Freeman.


~ by severalfourmany on June 23, 2012.

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