The Little-Known Poison Pill in the Academic World
In case of an emergency, stop, drop and don't read that book.
Innumerable popular phrases exalt the benefits of reading and emphasize its alleged fundamental role in making our lives meaningful and fulfilling. For example, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The man who never reads lives only once,” “Reading is essential for those who seek to rise above the ordinary;” and “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” While reading is not inherently good or bad, when and why we read might be more problematic because it often impairs our personal growth and suffocates our thinking. Given the controversial nature of my statement, I use two examples to support it: one each from leisure and academic reading.
To illustrate how recreational reading can impair personal growth, let us take the case of a writer who spent twenty years exploring the world of places, ideas, cultures, and people prior to publishing her book. She had visited numerous countries, learned new languages, immersed herself into various cultures, and built friendships. She had suffered from scorching heat in the desert, fell in love, climbed high peaks, learned new skills, had good and bad times, and adopted and then rejected beliefs. During these numerous first-hand experiences, her muscles, emotions, senses, and neurons were all challenged and very alive. Then, after these twenty years of immersing herself in the world, she decided to share her experiences in a book.
Then, you get this book and start reading it while comfortably sitting somewhere and seeping your favorite drink. You read, turn the pages, read some more and turn some more pages. After ten or twenty hours of sitting, reading, turning pages, and sipping your drink, you have finished reading the book and are left with the feeling that you had some of the experiences that the author described. However, the reality is that your only experiences were those of sitting, reading, turning pages, and seeping your drink, nothing more. Any additional experiences you felt were imaginary.
You might argue that these imaginary experiences could stimulate you to have new experiences and explore new places. While this might happen exceptionally, most of the time people do not change anything significant in their lives after finishing reading a compelling book. They just go and get another book.
Then, you might ask: What is the problem with having imaginary experiences?
Well, the problem is literally life-threatening. This is because having recurring imaginary experiences without taking real action results in these imaginary experiences replacing real ones in our lives: to walk, to see, to sweat, to fall, to get up, to love, to hate, to listen, to suffer, to enjoy, to absorb ideas and cultures that defy ours. Thus, that is to think, feel and be without intermediaries, which are the core of our personal development. A reading habit can end up suffocating our innate desire for first-hand exploration and discovery, the kind that can be commonly observed in young children.
Reading replaces most of these first-hand experiences by imaginary ones, which can deceive us into feeling that they are reasons for our lives to be more meaningful and exciting. The reality is that most people feel trapped in a lifestyle shaped by unappealing routines and pre-established norms and values. People try to escape from them by imagining exciting experiences with the help of books, movies, games, and other distractions. Unfortunately, no matter how sophisticated these distractions might be, we cannot count on them to empower us to take action and change our unsatisfactory lifestyles in any significant way.
Now, to illustrate how reading can impede our thinking and learning in an academic environment, let us explore the case of a typical doctoral student in the field of social sciences or humanities. Most probably, this student will be in his twenties and have little or no real experience in the field he is expected to conduct state-of-the-art research. As a consequence of his very limited experience and knowledge, his understanding of his research topic could be compared to a young “seedling” ready to grow into powerful tree of knowledge. During the first stage of his research, the student will typically focus on reading, reading, and reading some more. He will read every significant paper, article, and book that has been published in the fields relevant to his research. These are writings published by experts with decades of experience, who have often developed seemingly robust and complex arguments and theories. In our example, they can be compared to “sequoias” of knowledge.
Obviously, the student’s brittle seedling of understanding of the subject matter is no match for the expert’s sequoias of knowledge. This knowledge asymmetry results in the student’s ideas to suffocate under the experts’ massive evidence. Furthermore, the student will adopt the experts’ theories and ideas making only cosmetic modifications, if any at all. Reading would be meaningful and beneficial once the reader has enough first-hand experiences and understanding to enable him to maintain a conversation with the writer. Any time before that, the reader is not in the position to digest what he is reading.
It is delusional to think that one can develop and build his own understanding on the shoulders of previous researchers and thinkers. This is simply because it is not feasible for anyone to absorb in ten hours what has taken someone else decades to develop. And this is repeated hundreds—if not thousands—of times, once for each article or book. Ultimately, the doctoral thesis will most probably turn out to be a rearrangement of existing theories and ideas, not the development of new ones. Such a thesis will consolidate the contemporary academic status quo, not challenge it as it should.
These two cases illustrate why reading is not only not as valuable as commonly claimed, but also that reading is often detrimental to personal growth and learning. While sometimes reading might be beneficial, and even necessary, the motivation and timing of the reading inhibits genuine learning and action. Substituting firsthand experiences by extensive reading (or other imaginary experiences) results in people with unsatisfactory lives not taking significant action to improve them. In the academic world, the typical approach of encouraging extensive reading without prior relevant experience is a receipt for suffocating learning. It requires decisiveness and a lot of energy escape from our physical, intellectual, and social routines, to leave our comfort zone and dive into a world of unfamiliar ideas and places. Firsthand experiences and research will empower us to overcome these challenges and lay the foundations of our personal growth. Reading might me a nice complement or distraction. Act, think, and, if needed, read.
Patrik K. Meyer holds a PhD in International Studies from the University of Cambridge and is currently a New America Security Fellow.