Idle thoughts while reading? it may be a light bulb moment


Does your mind wander while you’re reading? All the books to read for that pesky literature review and you just can’t focus …

Sometimes the havering mind is “the worries”. Worries about how much reading there is and how hard some of it is. This is a moment when you need to soothe and reassure yourself. You have to tell yourself that it will all be OK, you just have to persevere, you have it on good authority that everybody feels like this and it’s not just you. You can also set up reading schedules if you’re so inclined, and daily reading targets if they work for you and help you feel better about getting through the stuff.

But sometimes those vacillating procrastinating thoughts are very useful.  You’re reading, or trying to, and one of three thoughts just pops into your mind. Unsolicited. You’re reading long and – woah – here is this thought.

Don’t dismiss any of these three thoughts – it’s good to listen to them – they are telling you something helpful. In fact, you may even have a light bulb moment. That idle thought is actually something important.

So what are these three things?

Well number one –

I’ve read this name before.

This is a really helpful response. It usually tells you that you have come across one of the people and texts that is important in the field. This is someone whose work most people refer to, their contribution is something that other people build on and/or interrogate and speak back to. This is a key figure in the field.

When you see this name repeated it is helpful to note it. Then go and find the text and read it for yourself – either in the original or in translation. If it does turn out to be important you won’t want to be citing it as a secondary source – a in b – but as a text that you have read and interpreted for yourself.

And number two –

I’ve read a lot of different opinions about this

This is a another really helpful response. It usually tells you that you have come across one of the key debates in the field. Something that isn’t settled, but something important.

It’s helpful to try pause when the deja vu thought interrupts. It’s time to analyse the nature of the differences in the readings. Are they methodological? Theoretical? Definitional? It’s very helpful to understand the key debates in a field, as you may well have to position yourself in relation to them. This is where I stand in relation to this debate. This is how I understand x and why. I stand with this lot of scholars over here. I start from the position that x is… My work is like a, b, c and in that I too understand x to be… My contribution speaks to the debate about x in the following ways…

And number three –

I’ve read something a lot like this before.

This is a really helpful response. It tells you that you are reading something that belongs with other papers. It has a strong family resemblance – it’s probably arguing much the same thing as other papers you’ve read. So this means that you have identified a theme in the literatures. More importantly, it may well signal that you don’t need to read any more like this, as you know the general shape of the argument that is offered in this body of work.

Hallelujah. You’ve probably reached what is called saturation point – any more reading in this theme isn’t going to tell you much more. And once you know you’re at saturation point, you can usually check whether new papers fit within this theme when you read the abstract. If you get that “I’ve read this before” thought, then you know that you can put this one aside as it won’t add to your understanding of the field.

So, if you find yourself reading along and any of these three thoughts pop into your mind, stop for just a minute and think about what you might have just worked out.

Clever you. And you weren’t even trying.