Reading for work; Reading for fun

When I put out the call for questions I could answer in a blog post, my friend RA, who by the way is also a super avid reader and always has good book recommendations, asked:

I am also curious: How do you balance reading for work/teaching versus pleasure? Do you get to teach material you’d read for fun?

This is such a good question and one that I’ve been learning how to answer for myself for a few years now. When I first started teaching full time, post grad school, I really couldn’t balance this at all. I was teaching a lot of texts I wasn’t already super familiar with at the time. Reading them well enough to be able to teach them was a huge part of the time I spent preparing for class.

When I read a text to teach it, I read it in a completely different way than I would if I were reading something for pleasure. The most visible difference is the pencil: if I’m reading something for reaching or research, I have a pencil in hand and I’m always ready to annotate. I’m circling words I need to look up, mapping out plot or marking scansion, noting points of connection across different parts of a text, tracking motifs, and so on. It’s a very active, very slow way to read. Occasionally I stop to look something up or turn back to reread an earlier section of the text. Sometimes I keep a running list of notes beside me with ideas about how I’ll present the material, what I can ask students to do with it, or connections I could make for my own research and writing.

This type of reading was all I had time for when I first started teaching full time. Back then, almost everything I was teaching was new, or at least relatively new, to me. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to develop those courses and repeat some of the same, now familiar, texts, while also adding in new ones here or there to replace ones that I’m tired of or ones that haven’t worked out well in the course. So, while I’m always adding new material, I haven’t ever had a semester where I just replaced everything with 100% new texts. This has meant that the number of new texts I’m working with in any given semester is much smaller, so it has opened up some more leisure reading time.

In my first years with this job, I think I really just wasn’t reading for fun at all. And how sad is that — the English teacher who never gets to read? The kind of scholarly reading I described above took … well, not exactly all of my time, but all of my bandwidth, so to speak. I just couldn’t process that much more reading. Now I can.

In recent years, I’ve been finding the time and energy to read more for fun. And thank dog for that. Here’s how I usually balance it now: the reading I need to do for my courses tends to happen during work hours. For the most part, I try to keep that to business days/hours and do it in my campus office. If that can’t happen, I will sometimes go to a coffee shop to work or I will work at my home desk on a Saturday morning. I’ll be sitting up straight and I’ll always have a pencil at hand. Work mode. My pleasure reading is far more likely to take place in the evening, on the couch, or in bed. I’ll be cozy and at least partly horizontal and there will definitely be a blanket involved. And, rather than a pencil, I’ll usually have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or a piece of candy at hand. Pleasure mode.

To get to the second part of RA’s question: do you get to teach material you’d read for fun? Yes, absolutely! It’s definitely not all stuff I’d choose to read for fun, but I do really enjoy everything I teach.

A lot of these texts are things I would just genuinely like to read. I teach a wide range — literature from all over the world, in all genres, from as early as ~2000 BCE to the present day. That’s 4000 years of writing, if you’re keeping track. My research area (and the area I’m most likely to read for pleasure) is 20th-21st century fiction, which is only a small part of the range I work with. That said, some of the texts I teach, even if they fall outside of my preferred focus area, are still things I’d read for fun anyway (Sappho, Tolstoy, Flaubert, the entire tradition of the sonnet, T’ang Dynasty poetry…). The best part, though, is when I teach the 20th and 21st century and I get to pick and choose my very favorite authors to include (Joyce, Woolf, Millay, Faulkner, Nabokov, Borges, García Márquez, Calvino, Murakami, Wallace…). Best of all: one summer I got to teach an upper level comparative literature course on detective fiction, which basically was five weeks of Let’s Read Kate’s Favorite Books and Talk about Them Every Day. That was fun.

Thinking of that class reminds me: because I get to teach things I love so often, there is often a sort of gray area when I’m reading something new. Is this new detective novel I just picked up going to be the pleasure read I’m expecting? Or is it going to turn into a scholarly read for a future course? That happened a couple of summers ago with Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. I started out reading it for fun and then I wound up teaching it a few months later. The moment I knew I was crossing over was the second I reached for a pencil.

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