Academic writers as readers


Many academic writers are avid readers. That’s because there is a strong connection – not causal, but surely correlated, she says hastily – between reading and writing. Reading and writing are mutually beneficial, they feed each other.

I was thinking about the read-write connection just this morning as I sat reading the books section of the weekend newspaper.

As I slurped down my breakfast smoothie – strawberry, raspberry and banana with yoghurt in case you want to know – I got stuck into the regular column where writers talk about the books that they read. And I realised that we tend not to have these kinds of conversations with academic writers. We don’t ask what academic writers are reading at the moment, the books influenced them most, the book they wish they’d written, the book they are ashamed not to have read, the book they couldn’t finish, the book they always give as a gift.

This omission is perhaps a little odd, as we are always making reference to books – we publicise our own, congratulate our friends on their publications, and recommend and review books in our field. But we tend not to focus on ourselves as readers. We don’t seem to have a forum where we list current must-read academic books or share the new releases to read over summer.

I’m interested in what people read, and I do wonder why we don’t have more writer-reader conversations. But perhaps the questions asked in Saturday’s newspaper – influential books and so on – aren’t the kind that academic writers can readily answer. Or are they? So I decided to have a bit of a play with them to see what my responses would be. And here they are.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve got several things on the go. Academically, I’m half way through Mieke Bal’s (2002) Travelling concepts in the humanities. A rough guide (U of Toronto Press), which is helping me to get somewhere in thinking about inter/trans/multi-disciplinary work. And I’m dipping in and out of Laura Micchiche’s (2017) Acknowledging writing partners (University Press of Colorado, Boulder, OA) which I first bought because it had a chapter on writing with animal companions. With pictures. And graphs! But her book is much more than cats on keyboards and I do like her conclusion that academic writing has an “exuberant vitality” despite its “performative struggles”, and leaves us with a “completion afterglow”. Non academic books? I’m reading Michele Roberts (2020) Negative capability. A diary of surviving (Sandstone Press), her memoir about getting over her publisher rejecting a book manuscript. And for light relief I’ve just started Ajay Chowdury’s (2021) detective novel The Waiter (Vintage) about a failed Kolkata cop who ends up serving in a Brick Lane restaurant.

What academic book influenced me most?

It’s probably Bourdieu’s Distinction. I encountered this tome while I was doing my PhD. It was the first book I’d read that brought together economics, education, work and cultural practices. And Bourdieu is still my go-to to explanation for everyday life/experience, although I’ve flirted with lots of other writers and ideas since then. But if I could name two or three influential books, then I’d have to add Laurel Richardson’s (1997) Fields of Play. Constructing an academic life (Rutgers University Press) about being creative in social science writing, and Ruth Behar’s (1996) The vulnerable observer. Anthropology that breaks your heart (Beacon Press) on ethical self and other care in research.

What academic book do I wish I’d written?

No question, it’s Mike Rose’s (1989) Lives on the boundary. A moving account of the struggles and achievements of America’s underclass. (Penguin) Rose combines three strands: 1. a memoir of his own life, growing up as a poor Italian immigrant in LA and supported by a local parish priest to continue his education, 2. an account of the pedagogical practices at the University California Writing Centre which he ran, and 3. stories of the first gen uni students who came to the Centre for help. It’s a wonderful example of a complex sociological narrative, beautifully written.

What book am I ashamed not to have read?

Well I have to say, in my field of education, it’s probably anything by Vygotsky. I’ve read lots about him and dipped in and out of some of his work but never really got stuck in. His work doesn’t really resonate with me despite how influential it/he is.

What book couldn’t I finish?

Too many to even name. But one that stands out and nags at me every time I look at my bookshelf is Luhmann’s Risk. I do feel like I ought to get to grips with Luhmann. Even though I have deliberately sought out talks about his work I just find the prose off-putting. Don’t @me please. We all have a Luhmann. We should talk about our Luhmanns more.

What “academic” book do I give as a present?

I often give people the not-really-academic books that have been given to me. So for quite a while it was Chris Kraus’ (2006) I love Dick (Semiotexte) – so good on the experiences of white women of a particular generation (thanks Becky). But my friend Chris recently gave me Dider Eribon’s Returning to Reims (2013 Semiotexte), a sociological memoir about class, home and education. Eribon astutely gets to the ambivalences and awkwardnesses of class mobility. Lots of recognition and resonances in there for me. So this is my gift of choice at present. You see the theme here I’m sure!

So there you go. My reader writer responses. How would you answer these questions? Have a go. It’s just a bit of slightly serious fun.