Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sinking Ship

About two years ago, aware that I hadn't yet read a book that was very important to my field, I asked my friend J if I could borrow his extra copy. He readily agreed, since he'd been referring to the book in conversations for some time and knew I needed to read it. So he lent me his extra copy and I took the book home and promptly didn't read it. I moved it from pile to pile, shelf to shelf. Time passed. I mentally thumped myself repeatedly for not reading it. Very Important Book became emblematic of all the reading I hadn't done. I feel like I'm haunted by all the books and articles I should read but don't. And those are only the ones I know I should read. There's a whole phantom universe of literature that I cannot read because I do not know it exists. It seems a hopeless struggle, a struggle represented by this one damn book.

Still, this spring, I was determined to remove this one book from my list so I could return the copy to J (never loan books to grad students) and move on to feeling bad about another seminal book I hadn't read. So when I went to visit Xtin over my spring break, I took it along. We sat one day in a coffee shop and I opened Very Important Book and began reading it. We chatted a bit about it and about the introduction. I read a little more of the book during the week I was there and more still on the flight home. When the vacation was over, though, I was plunged back into the day-to-day of graduate life and found myself reading other things. Very Important Book was set aside.

So here I've been, feeling bad about what I haven't read. It's one of the great frustrating truths of graduate school, for me, that no matter how much I've read it's not enough. I've carried that book to coffee shops and to the library. I carried it half way around the damn world and I still didn't finish it. I'm frustrated by my inability to get through these things so that I carry their ideas around instead of their pages.

The story, though, does not end there, I'm embarrassed to say. Last night, I was filing papers that I'd cleaned out of old folders and files when I reorganized the desk area a couple of months ago. It had all been sitting in a box under the desk, waiting for me to file. So I'm making piles around me on the floor. There was one for thesis drafts and one for teaching evals and one for old papers. I reached into the box and pulled out a stack to file, and on top was a paper I'd written my first year in graduate school, five solid years ago. I looked at it and almost choked.

Right there in that box was a paper I'd written on, I kid you not, Very Important Book. The same Very Important Book that I have been beating myself up over not reading for the last two years. It turns out that not only have I actually read the book, I've written a paper on it. Not only have I written a paper on it, but I'd written a paper that received very enthusiastic comments from one of my advisors. I apparently had "brilliant!!" insights into this book. And I swear to you—I'll swear on my future in academia (take that for what it's worth)—that I have no memory of it. Not one. It's not that I didn't remember the details of the book. It's that I was aware of the book and convinced that I'd never read it. At all. Not a page.

I seriously don't know what to make of this. I can't decide whether I should laugh my head off or cry and drop out of grad school altogether. I do know that I find it more than a little disturbing. It's one thing if I can't get myself to do the work. That seems like the kind of thing I can work on—better scheduling, more discipline, writing groups, whatever. There are solutions to that. But if I can't actually remember that I've done the work this ship is going down. Maybe it already has gone down, and I just don't remember it.

Photo by Tom Murphy VII


Blogger thefrogprincess said...

Great story, we've all been there. I know the kind of book you mean, the kind that's so important to the field broadly (not just your subfield) that people don't even ask you if you've read it like they would if it were merely an important book. Nobody asks you if you've read it b/c how could you not have read it, even though it's 900 pages (or whatever).

I'd take the realization that you've read it as a good thing. You no longer have to dip your head in shame when the conversation comes up and you don't have to bs your way through an oral exam question about the book. You can say with confidence that you've read the thing and now you can look all quizzical when you encounter others who "haven't read it" either.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Christian Student Scientist said...

This is hilarious, thank you for sharing! I don't think you should drop out of school though. You don't know how much any of those PhDs actually remember about what they have read. I suspect it is much worse. My advisor keeps on asking me to bring a chapter on a certain topic which I brought to him a year ago. I can't figure out if actually never read it or his memory is that bad. Can't ask him either :)

6:23 AM  
Blogger Ancrene Wiseass said...

Seconding CSS here. The academic grind seems to do this to pretty much everybody, so far as I can tell. It's probably the root of the "absent-minded professor" stereotype.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Puzzled said...

This is actually a major step in your academic career. It can now be convincingly stated that you've forgotten more on the subject than your students will ever know.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Xtin said...


Nothing like that has ever happened to me. Nope.


6:47 AM  
Blogger Acre said...

Well, I'll just have to be amused I'm not alone, then.

And Puzzled, leave it to you to find a hilarious spin on the whole thing. My students might not know what they don't know, but I'm pretty sure they know I've forgotten it.

9:42 AM  

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