As today is World Book Day, I thought I'd take this chance to explore book clubs. As academics, is it important for us to read beyond our own research area? We are all so busy with our research deadlines, funding applications and the millions of ideas we want to pursue... how can we possibly find the time to add in something so... "recreational" as a book club? And why should we even bother?
1. Academics are notoriously bad writers. Yes, I did just say that on a forum for academics. However, this is the most important reason that you should start reading novels. Now. Academic writing has the reputation of being dull, stilted and inaccessible for even the most intelligent reader. Assignment marking criteria often stipulates: clarity of communication, supported with evidence, assembling a coherent story. Contrast this with the conventions and reality of writing in academic journals. Can you honestly say that you look forward, with certainty, to reading articles published in journals?
Higher education is about learning, but we do ourselves – and our students – no favours by writing arcane tripe that obscures rather than illuminates
2. Reading improves your writing. Yes, that even applies to academics. As we all preach, it's never to late to learn. So let's take that lesson and apply it to our own work. So why read? Each novel teaches us new words (oh yes, even you, intelligent readers!). Exposure to rare vocabulary and literature beyond your field of research can improve your writing skills as you learn from different styles of writing and alternative writing structures. Let's face it, you're bound to be a better and more interesting person (imagine the future you in figure below - who wouldn't like reading with a pile of leaves in their lap while being attacked by mosquitoes in a dark forest?!).
3. You meet interesting people. Book clubs are better when you are reading with people you don't know. We can learn more from drawing upon perspectives from a wider range of individuals. The diverse members of this group bring in viewpoints of authors, historians, lawyers, scientists, engineers and more. Some may be able to offer literary insight and criticism from an academic perspective, while others simply follow their gut feelings about the book. With members from all over the world participating, we may observe different cultural implications that we would otherwise have missed.
4. You read things that you wouldn’t otherwise read. A book club encourages you to read beyond the academic texts and journal articles you are used to reading for work. Fiction can dramatically expand your horizons, challenge your imagination and bring you new ideas. Sometimes these ideas may manifest as epiphanies in your own work. Other times they may just give you a temporary escape from a challenge you are facing in your academic or personal life. Some of us may love the book while others hate it - and that's ok. One person's rubbish is another's treasure!
5. Some books need to be discussed. There is a notion that reading should remain a private pursuit. However some books just need to be discussed. What was it about? Why was it written? Has it challenged your thinking or inspired your research? Each reader may have a different idea about what a book “means” and sometimes, just discussing it brings it to life.
6. You can meet up with others in your area and chat about it. Although this book club has started out as an online one, it doesn't need to stay that way. One of the benefits of a book club is meeting people and chatting. We all thrive on friendship. Through this network we can make and keep friends. We might find that some people in the network are based at your institution or in your town. Invite them for a meetup! Or if not, ask your friends if they are keen to meet you once a month to have some nibbles and a chat about the book. Share your thoughts with us on the forum, but if you prefer the face-to-face discussions, food and chit-chat, start your own group now!
Finally, in the words of Stephen King:
If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
So come on, academics! Do yourself and your readers a favour. Let's get reading.