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Too much to read FAQ

April 26, 2012

After writing that piece on having too much to read, I frequently asked myself a few questions:

Is complaining about having too much to read a form of humblebragging?

Yes. A humblebrag is “a specific type of bragging which masks the brag in a faux-humble guise.” When academics complain about having too much to read, we’re calling attention to our impressive intellectual ambitions, but concealing the brag within a humble gesture of suffering for a noble cause. “Oh gosh, I hate trying to master five centuries of commentary on Machiavelli. It’s just too much to read!”

What about having too many student papers to read?

Maybe complaining about piles of student papers is also humblebragging, because it calls attention to our pedagogical ambitions. After all, we could assign fewer papers or shorter papers or just switch to multiple choice exams (and with growing class sizes, that seems increasingly necessary). There’s nothing wrong with bragging a little about upholding academic standards in tough times, but then let’s really brag about good teaching instead of complaining about student papers. Complain instead about policies that lead to increasing student to faculty ratios.

Does everyone have too much to read?

No. It’s usually a disease of the relatively affluent. Maybe it’s even a form of affluenza.

Is having too much to read more like having a book or having a headache?

More like a headache. It’s a mental affliction and not a physical object like a book. Having a lot of books may reinforce the affliction, but doesn’t cause it. People who love and collect books (check out these wonderful book photos) don’t necessarily complain about not being able to read them all cover-to-cover.

Is having too many books to read the same as having too little time to read?

No. In their book Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom (excerpt pdf), Robert Goodin and co-authors distinguish between discretionary time, which is the time left over after you’ve completed basic socially necessary tasks (work, childcare, hygiene, sleep), and spare time, which is unscheduled time that you spontaneously use as you like. Some people objectively lack discretionary time (poor single parents), and some have a lot of discretionary time but fill it with extra work and other scheduled activities, resulting in a self-imposed lack of spare time (rich couples with no kids and many fixed commitments). Tenured professors may lack spare time, but they often have a lot of discretionary time that they could devote to reading. The problem it that no matter how much discretionary time a person enjoys, it will never be enough for those who persistently have too much to read. People who complain about having too much to read will always have too much to read, regardless of whether they’re teaching four courses or on sabbatical. (I speak from experience.)

Can a research grant help a person avoid having too much to read?

No. You might hire an assistant to read boring academic articles and summarize them for you, but that doesn’t work for really good books that you need or want to read yourself.

Can having a good memory help you avoid having too much to read?

No. A good memory certainly helps, of course. Once or twice I’ve taken a book off my shelf, something I’d been meaning to read for a long time, and come across my own notes in the margins from when I’d read it before. But no matter how well you remember what you’ve read, you could always read more.

Can setting narrow goals and clear priorities reduce the feeling of having too much to read?

Yes, of course. Good luck with that.

Do you have too much to read?

Not anymore. And the next time I do, I’ll try to keep it to myself.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Friedman permalink
    April 26, 2012 5:51 PM

    This was a very interesting post and quite amusing. The only time that I can recall having too much to read was when I was a graduate student. It was also literally true, not humble bragging. It was grousing widely shared among graduate students in my day.

    Every professor appeared to believe his class was the only class that the student was taking. Each class alone assigned more than a week’s work. The real problem surfaced when the professor called on one to make an intelligent comment on an article or book that one had not even skimmed. The graduate students I truly admired were the ones who could successfully BS their way out of these situations, a truly rare skill, and not one that I shared.

  2. Ben Hoyt permalink
    May 6, 2012 5:13 PM

    I wanted to check out your link on humblebragging, and I thought of a relevant one of my own:

    “Boy, I recognize that red and blue folio books in the header picture of your blog. When I read all the volumes of Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” those covers struck fear in my heart!”

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