I decided a little over a year ago that I was going to read books at breakfast time. I was in the middle of writing comps papers and looking for ways to break the incessant cycle of work-sleep-work-work-sleep that was leaving me exhausted. I also wanted to start escaping the reading practices that the demands of course work and comps exams had necessitated: reading for long stretches of time with intense focus, and with an end (a paper, a presentation, or a specific problem to explore) always in mind as I made my way through a work. This is a method of reading that’s obviously useful to cultivate as a grad student and an academic generally: it lets you get work done. It’s also not inherently antithetical to pleasure. But it can occasionally be exhausting. It’s also sometimes pleasant to just read a work, and let ideas form slowly and naturally over a course of time dictated by the text’s length and the rhythms of its language.
So I instituted my breakfast reading programme. The club is a small one, with just one member, really (the cats are enthusiastic spectators and page interferers; the Marchioness also likes to try to sneak bites of oatmeal, yoghurt, and toast). Nevertheless, the programme has strict rules. The books I read have to be entirely unrelated to my dissertation. I am not to assign any deadlines or daily reading quotas — which means it’s perfectly fine to spend the entire breakfast staring at the same page if I’m very tired. I can skim or even give up on a book altogether if it’s really not to my liking. The purpose is to create a space of reading that is entirely pleasurable and leisurely break from the more intense reading with which the rest of my day might be preoccupied.
The results have been delightfully startling. I started with Boccaccio’s Decameron on the grounds that 1) I’d heard it was entertaining, and 2) I knew it was a collection of short tales. I imagined reading one story a day, and thereby finishing the entire work in a few months. But Boccaccio is far more entertaining than I’d been led to believe, and some of his stories are exceedingly short (1-2 pages!), and I finished the Decameron in about three weeks or so. Boccaccio confirmed the goodness of the “Books with Breakfast” programme, and I quickly moved on to Rabelais (of whose Gargantua and Panatgruel I skimmed great portions — mainly in books 4 and 5). And then the Kalevala. And then the Song of Roland. And it continued.
I didn’t really stop to assess my reading until recently, and am now absolutely staggered by what one can manage within a regular 45 minutes of slow, leisurely reading. Over breakfast in the past 16 months I made my way through The Song of the Cid, Piers Plowman, Terry Gilliam’s biography of Chaucer, Donaldson’s biography of Jonson, The Romance of the Rose, a collection of stories by Chekhov, another by Gogol, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, a collection of poetry about dogs, a novella by Turgenev, Nick Hornby’s latest roundup of columns (More Baths, Less Talking), a biography of Tchaikovsky, Chekhov’s The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, and his letters, Margaret Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies, and the entire works of Chaucer. Admittedly, there was some (lots) skimming in Chaucer’s “Parson’s Tale” and the “Treatise on the Astrolabe”. And I read Gilliam’s biography at the same time as Chaucer’s works themselves. I also read some of Donaldson’s bio on the bus to campus. Still: breakfast yields a lot of books!
Breakfast reading has oddly helped my dissertation reading habits quite a bit. First because it’s gotten me out of the habit of waking up and immediately directing all of my attention towards work; it’s a bit of a mental reprieve and I find I’m less anxious as a result. Second, it’s made me realise how much more productive relaxed reading can be (and how much time I really spend obsessing over my “inadequate” reading pace, and how I reallyreallyreally need to have a book read on time to stay on track). The trick to good reading is to be able to suspend all the deadline and other anxieties and just read. Which is not to say I’m now great at doing so when it’s time to get down to work, but the breakfast has been working as a useful practice session.
This year I’ve decided to try to write something response to everything I read. In a way, this will just be an extension of regular note-taking practices, except instead of limiting my “notes” to articles and scholarly books, I will also try to respond to the things I’m reading in my free time. The point behind the exercise is really just an attempt to keep in the habit of regular writing, making the act a less fearful prospect. But I’ve also found in the last sixteen months that I’ve been wanting the space and time to process my reactions to the works that have been so engaging and enjoyable in my breakfast reading. I’m not giving myself any sort of word limit or response criteria though — just letting thoughts come out in whatever way they like.
That sounds fun, doesn’t it?
23 March 2013 ~ Hamilton