A couple years ago, I realized that my friends outside academia were reading many more books than I was. A former grad school classmate who had gone off to work some boring job in New York was reading a novel a week. I look over at Pandagon and Amanda is tossing up book reviews at a steady clip. This post was occasioned by the many bloggers I know who are reading Infinite Jest this summer. I am not.
There are still things I read. Like David Lewis' "New Work For A Theory Of Universals", which I finished while staying overnight at Heathrow two weeks ago. And Tom Kelly's paper on epistemic disagreement. And a bunch of other stuff that's important for my job, like this collection of essays on Thus Spoke Zarathustra that I reviewed for NDPR. (For the most part, it wasn't very good.)
Please don't feel sneered at! I admire and envy your interest and ability to read all the amazing and wonderful things you do. I read all this contemporary metaphysics and epistemology mostly because it helps me build myself into a more effective machine for turning hard liquor into journal articles. And I enjoy it, because I enjoy philosophy. My job suits me very well. But I'm kind of impressed by all you people who read novels and short story collections and essays written by people from worlds without tenure. I just read work-related stuff, and then I drink and dance and do things that allow me to make animal noises. Or blog.
While I was visiting my sister-in-law a few weeks back, her wife remarked that the books I read all had titles like "The Metaphysics of Logic".
I found this very funny, because one of the books I had brought along to read (and which she hadn't seen me with) was Dummett's The Logical Basis of Metaphysics.
(Which, unfortunately, I'm finding I don't have sufficient background in semantics of non-classical logics to fully understand. This one is going to be shelved for a while.)
The other book I brought, though, was Kendall Walton's collection of essays, Marvelous Images. I'd always thought that Walton's philosophy had a lot in common with Scott McCloud's theoretical work on comics, and I was pleased to see one of the essays featured several illustrations from Understanding Comics.
I've said on occasion that if you read just one Lewis essay, "New Work" is the one to read. Although "Holes" is also a strong contender.
"I admire and envy your interest and ability to read all the amazing and wonderful things you do. I read all this contemporary metaphysics and epistemology mostly because it helps me build myself into a more effective machine for turning hard liquor into journal articles."
Fiction reading is a bit like classical music. If you don't have the habit, it can seem quite off-putting and alien. But once you school yourself, it's got some pretty sweet rewards.
If you ever have any interest in picking up the fiction reading habit, I'd suggest starting with some older classics. Modern fiction is designed for a specialized audience of fiction readers, (of which you are not one), while classical fiction was designed more for general readers, so it's a bit easier to use as training wheels.
Two I'd suggest:
Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. It's got a great authorial voice, and it involves plenty of discussion of philosophy, history, and politics, so it might be right in your wheelhouse.
Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. It's not considered the Citizen Kane of novels for nothing. Wonderful authorial voice, crazily meandering, hilarious, and full of truth.
We live in a non-fiction age for books, with movies having taken the place of written fiction, so your inability to feel at home with the archaic form is not surprising. I was weaned with fiction, otherwise I'd probably never have been able to get past the learning curve. But once you do get into it, it can provide insights and mental training you really can't get anyplace else.
(Of course, maybe you used to read fiction, and just recently stopped to turn more whisky into articles, in which case you can disregard this entire comment. When I'm busy, I'll go into a fiction hiatus too. But I'm always amazed at the number of otherwise smart folks who've never bothered to learn to read fiction, and I was worried you might be one of those.)
My favorite Lewis essay is probably "Elusive Knowledge". Before reading it, I thought that I might assign "New Work" in my graduate seminar next semester. Now I'm thinking I won't, because (1) there's already going to be a whole bunch of Lewis going around and (2) I think "New Work" presupposes some familiarity with what previous metaphysicians were up to.
I'm actually taking off on an old joke there, Petey, about how a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems. I used to enjoy a lot of nifty SF/Fantasy back in my college days, but since the beginning of grad school my reading has really dropped off.
What's the topic of your seminar next semester?
Law school didn't kill reading fiction for me, although it made it somewhat harder to fit in. I'm worried that practicing will -- and if I try to transition to academia, that definitely will.
take off or not, neil, that was a nice line.
joe, i do not think practicing will kill reading fiction. if anything, it should drive it, for the relief it provides form the numbing narrowness of practice is welcome.
kids, now that will not kill, but dull your chance to get to fiction. still, kids are more amusing than most fiction and eventually give you time to get back to it with renewed eyes.
Brock, one of our analytic metaphysicians is going on sabbatical for the whole year and a visiting ethics guy is coming in, so I thought I'd demonstrate my versatility by teaching a "Here's some useful tools from analytic philosophy" graduate seminar. There's going to be a fair amount of semantic externalism, for one thing, and also some epistemology.
A cat jumped into my lap and surprised me, which caused me to end that last comment early. Anyway, the epistemology part will include the Bonjour-Goldman debate between coherentism and reliabilism, and some Nozick tracking stuff, and of course Gettier at the beginning.
"I used to enjoy a lot of nifty SF/Fantasy back in my college days, but since the beginning of grad school my reading has really dropped off."
As I suspected, Neil, you never really learned to read fiction. (A brief affinity for a specific genre type that you are mentally close to doesn't count.)
Not today, and not tomorrow, but someday soon, pick up one of the books I mentioned, or some other piece of classical fiction from the 1800 - 1930 period. Slog your way through the first 30 to 50 pages, even though you want to put it down. And see if you don't start getting the knack soon thereafter.
The novel is a wonderful thing. It gives you a view into the interior life of the species in a manner that other types of books are far clumsier at doing. Try reading it slowly for half an hour a night before you go to sleep, if you can't find the time otherwise. There are profound rewards.
The best thing about quitting grad school was getting time -- and mental space -- to read non-specialized literature. Mostly I read non-philosophy non-fiction (I'm a fiend for history), but I think Petey is right that novels offer unique insight into our inner lives.
The trick that fiction reading professional philosophers of my acquaintance tended to use was to justify reading the novel by including it on a syllabus. This works well in ethics, and for people who got tenure back in the day.
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