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Random Reading as Thinking and Writing: Another Tool for the Long-Haul Writer

March 19, 2013

As a scholar in-training who is also trying to finish her dissertation, I am usually not given to reading randomly, since there is already so much to read as it is merely to get through the stuff I planned on reading. However, as I have discovered this weekend, a discursive detour in the books that one reads, including a book randomly picked from the bookshelf, can have a positive effect: if forces your mind to leave behind, momentarily, the scoped-out terrain out to enter into another that one serendipitously chance upon, including revisiting the book that has been lying dormant and neglected on one’s shelf.

That was precisely what I decided to do the last weekend towards the end of spring break, which is picking up a book I have not read for the longest time. I am surprised to discover how little I knew about of the content of the book when I first bought it almost seven years ago, and then carting it to all the new places I have moved to while never quite getting beyond the first few pages. I chanced upon that book because I was looking for reference materials to an article I was working on last week.

Though I never ended up using anything from that book, my insistence on reading it cover-to-cover gave me real insight into forms of narrative development that often gets lost when one reads academic or philosophical texts, though the book, a popular non-fiction, has its dry and uninspired moments when it spends too much time flogging on some of the author’s favorite pet theories or objects, or when there are just too many examples that do not all add up into a eureka moment or fast-moving read, certainly a common problem with academic writers writing on difficult subjects.

What I learned are important strategies for thinking about how one can structure the dissertation (future book) chapters to bring together disparate aspects of branching possibilities to converge at the center of the topic (or even a big topic surrounded by diverging and converging subtopics), the book, through no particular intention, got my brain moving again, after having all those disconsolate days of thinking through how to clarify the research question of my second chapter (and succeeding chapters) so that they all make total sense to each other, despite the forking paths the arguments can and will take.

In my case, reading a book about an object with philosophical potential even as the book is not in itself attempting at philosophizing (at least not explicitly), helped me worked through some of the tangles of philosophical arguments I have to deal with in my own work, while also thinking about the problems of the interdisciplinary audience with the different background they bring to the text I am writing.

Later today, I had to read a chapter from a book about writing across genres and disciplines and how to teach that to undergrads (some days, I feel like I need to take a class in writing to work through my interdisciplinary angst), and it has clarified for me, though not to the ‘T,’ how I can attempt to engage the different requirements of the disciplines I straddle to produce a text that is not like what is. At the same time, I must be attentive to my disciplinary home within for even in an interdisciplinary program, the pull of the discipline, and in my case (literature, media theory, and cultural theory),  is stronger than even the objects of one’s inquiry founded upon another discipline.

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