In Praise Of Academic Re-Reading

Fields Of Play coverI read novels for pleasure, and I often re-read novels for pleasure too. I’ve read all Terry Pratchett’s books, and if I’m a bit down or feeling overwhelmed, a re-read of one of those will always cheer me up. I sometimes revert to the comfort of children’s books when I’m poorly: Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series is a great favourite. Then there are books I re-read because they’re simply too good to read only once, such as Keri Hulme’s The Bone People which I re-read every few years.

Right now, though, I’m doing something I don’t usually do: I’m re-reading an academic book. It’s Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life by Laurel Richardson. Richardson is an American feminist sociologist and her book came out in 1997, two years before I started my MSc in Social Research Methods. I read it first for that course, admired and loved it, and have referred to it often since then. But it never occurred to me to re-read the book until now.

I chose to re-read it because I’m embarking on a new writing project focused on creative writing in academia. I knew I wanted to draw on Richardson’s work, and I thought to myself that I should re-read her book. You know what? This is the very first time it has ever occurred to me to re-read an academic book. I have occasionally re-read an academic journal article, but I don’t do that often either. Yet I regularly re-read novels. So why is this?

I think there are a few reasons. First, novels are stories, and stories are essential. They’re important for my wellbeing in a very different way from academic literature. I could live without academic literature much more easily than I could live without stories. Second, let’s face it, some academic books aren’t particularly enjoyable or interesting to read. Third, not all academic books need reading from cover to cover in the first place. For example, some are reference books to dip into, others are edited collections where not all chapters are equally relevant to each reader.

But then there are the other books: the ones that are engaging and inspirational, exciting and even at times hard to put down. Fields of Play is one of those. It’s a fabulous book. When I first read it, it was radical, inspiring, full of feminist rage and joy which spoke to me as clearly as the concepts and arguments set out by the author. Richardson dismantles the rationale for conventional academic writing with its passive voice and authorial authority. Then she creates a rationale for using fiction techniques, poetry, drama and other creative approaches in academic writing. And she practises what she preaches within the text, to excellent effect.

Reading this book again after almost 20 years, I find there is very little that has dated. Richardson’s experiences of discrimination at the hands of male colleagues are similar to those I hear of regularly from women in academia today. I’m also aware that the fight against conventional academic writing continues, as I frequently hear from doctoral students in despair because their supervisors won’t let them write in the first person. These are disheartening messages. But they also mean that this angry, loving book is still highly relevant.

I’m really happy to be re-reading this book. I’m learning new things because of course I have a very different context for Richardson’s work than I did two decades ago. So when I’ve finished this one, I’ll be thinking about other academic books I’ve loved and might be glad to re-read. But in the meantime, I wonder if there are any academic books that you re-read, as opposed to dipping in and out for reference. Maybe everyone is a re-reader except me! If you do re-read, I’d love to know which books you return to, if you could take the time to leave a comment.

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7 thoughts on “In Praise Of Academic Re-Reading

  1. I re-read non-academic books too, especially when I’m ill or tired or my head is too full. Barbara Kingsolver is a favourite for me, and George MacKay Brown (who makes me want to go to Orkney again), and Josie Dew (who always make me want to go on a cycling adventure).

    But I haven’t re-read academic books either. In fact, shamefully, I haven’t done an awful lot of *reading* of academic books – not whole ones in one go. It’s something I promised myself I’d do while on sabbatical, but I look at the pile of things I’d like to read, and the other pile of things I feel I ‘should’ read, and feel overwhelmed. I’ve certainly not read Fields of Play.

    Do you tend to sit down and read until you’ve finished, or read a chapter a day or so? I’m sure I used to read a lot more when I had a train commute!

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    • Actually, on reflection, I *have* re-read several books about writing – Howard Becker’s ‘Writing for Social Scientists’, Peter Elbow’s ‘Writing with Power’, Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ (which isn’t about academic writing specifically). I tend to read that type of thing in my spare time – but generally don’t read subject-specific stuff in my spare time (but also feel I don’t particularly have time to read it in work time either…). Might allocate a day a month as a book-reading day!

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    • Hi Jenni, it varies. Sometimes I binge-read but more often it’s a chapter a day or so, often in the evening after dinner – or in the bath first thing! Train commutes are great for reading but my current 20 metre walk commute isn’t much help 😉

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  2. Thanks, Helen, for pointing to the value of re-reading academic works. If a book or article is really good, then there’s probably more value in re-reading it than in reading some randomly chosen article.
    When I’ve re-read non-fiction books, it’s usually because they are related to my current research. I can think of half a dozen instances. Here are a couple.
    Aldous Huxley’s “Science, Liberty and Peace” appeared in 1946. I read it in 1982 and recognised how far-sighted it was. In 1994 I re-read it for a project I was working on. The prologue of my “Technology for Nonviolent Struggle” is a discussion of Huxley’s book (https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/01tnvs/). Huxley’s book is short, so re-reading it was not a chore.
    The Journal of Resistance Studies runs reviews of classic books in the field. I did a review of Gene Sharp’s 1973 book “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”, a mammoth and pioneering work. I first went through it briefly in 1977, then read it thoroughly in 1979, taking pages of notes. In 2002 I closely re-read a 50-page chapter for a current project. For my review (https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/17BRjrs.html), in 2016 I went through the whole book again, reading and skimming.
    I take notes on all the books I read. It’s fascinating to compare notes on the same book based on readings decades apart.
    Helen, you’ve encouraged me to do more re-reading, for my own edification and to create greater awareness of important contributions.
    Regards,
    Brian Martin

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Brian, for a typically thoughtful and useful comment. I bet it is fascinating to compare notes – I must look back and see if I made any notes from Richardson’s book all those years ago.

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