Two weeks ago with Written on Their Hearts: Writing, Worship, and Spiritual Formation in the Life of the Mind, Dr. Royce Francis began a new series on writing with a new format for the ESN blog, i.e., Masterclass. Like a Masterclass in music or performance, it provides the opportunity to learn skills from an expert, as well as exercises designed by that expert to help you deepen those skills in your own academic life. In this series, which will run for the length of the spring semester, Royce will weave together theological reflection and practical suggestions on becoming a skilled writer in general and within your field. He will also provide exercises each week to give readers a way to put the ideas in the series into practice. Join ESN for a Masterclass in writing. Questions and conversation are welcome—feel free to use the Comments section to express them, or email them to http://www.intervarsity.org/contact/emerging-scholars-network.
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. — Genesis 2:8-9 NIV
All of us have heard it many times:
I can’t remember the last time I read a book just for enjoyment … just for fun.
Now, I don’t want to minimize the very real time pressures that an academic faces. If you are an undergraduate you might be carrying 6 courses, a part-time job, a research experience to put on your resume, community service, and a social life. If you are a graduate student, you may be also taking several courses, teaching or assisting in one or two others, planning and conducting your own independent research, mentoring other students, and keeping your social life on life support. If you are a faculty member—whether or not on tenure track—you have probably given up on the social life part, but you are now trying to build or maintain a research program, serve your academic community, serve the community where you live, manage a household, and so on … Every one of us who has been led by Jesus to the academic life faces immense time pressure.
However, I view reading as one of the primary ways we express our love for ideas. Not only is reading the basic discipline of discipleship for an academic, but we cannot form new ideas if we are not filled with old ones. Ideas do not emerge from a vacuum. Moreover, if academics will not love ideas for ideas’ sake, who, exactly, will?
The reason I reproduce the time-crunch refrain that we have heard so often is because even though we usually hear people say it about “a book,” we know that what they really mean is “anything.” That is, the more accurate version of the statement is: “I can’t remember the last time I read anything just for enjoyment … just for fun.” This is simply unacceptable for academics. I can say this without equivocation: You are not maximizing your idea development if you are not reading for enjoyment.
I think that most people don’t view the life God has given them as a unique privilege. In placing us in academic life, God has placed us in the Garden. When we look at Genesis 2:8-9, most of us are very familiar with the Tree of Knowledge. To me, the Tree of Knowledge represents our desire to put ourselves in the place of God. To re-create our own standards of right, wrong, and righteousness. But while we focus on the Tree that led to our curse, what about looking at the trees God meant for blessing? God placed us in the Garden with trees that are good for food and pleasing to the eye. God placed us in the Garden for pleasure. And more than this, God gave us the Tree of Life.
What does this mean for our academic life? You are rightly living out God’s call to this life if you are making time to partake of the pleasures in the Garden. To me, these trees represent our reading. If we are reading for pleasure, and not to take the place of God, we are living rightly. If we are reading not only to satisfy the demands of our discipline—that is, to enjoy the trees that are simply good for food, then we limit the ways our souls can be nurtured in the Garden. No, we must read widely and enjoy trees that are both good for food and good for pleasure.
One of the most important things we learn from social network science is that novel information is most likely to be received through our weak social ties. The intuition behind this is that the people who are our strong ties already spend a large amount of time with us. We will already share many of the ideas of our strong ties and will have already integrated them into our thinking. Novelty comes through associates or acquaintances whom we rarely meet. The integration of these new ideas with the familiar produces novelty. This is the exact same way novelty is produced in research.
If you are not reading for enjoyment, you are probably being exposed to the same ideas every day. It’s like hanging out with our familiar circle of friends: we’re comfortable, but not learning anything really new and not seeing our own life through a new lens. Reading for enjoyment is like meeting new friends or making new acquaintances. In reading for enjoyment, we offer ourselves the opportunity to make new connections across disciplines because we are likely reading for enjoyment what we could never justify on the basis of our daily work. Being exposed to these new ideas gives us a new lens through which we can view our work. Let God nourish your soul and give you food for pleasure.
The main reason we don’t read is time management. In my last entry, I gave you a first step towards reading more and writing more. The other reason we don’t read is that we feel guilty. I’m going to give you two tips that I want you to put into practice this week.
- Say No liberally, Say Yes stingily. We are human beings, and that means we have limitations on our strength, health, and vigor. If we don’t have time to read books, magazines, peer-reviewed publications, and other literature just for enjoyment then we are probably over-committed. This week, take a good look at your obligations and see which of those you need to let go of. Then, let go of it. In addition, make “No” your default answer for every new request. Be much more selective and discerning about the things you will take on because time is very precious as an academic worker. You need the time to pursue idea development and reading for pleasure.
- Get a public library card and/or buy a magazine. [Humanities and liberal arts scholars, again: don’t laugh.] If you haven’t been reading for pleasure at this point, the most obvious thing to do, at least 10 years ago when I was in graduate school, would be to make a point to walk through the peer-reviewed periodicals of interest every day for about 30 minutes or so. Not only would you be doing “work,” but titles of interesting papers would catch your eye. Now, most institutions keep electronic subscriptions and the periodicals stacks are disappearing. The next thing to try after this is get a public library card and once a week go to the librarians’ recommendations stack. Read something from that stack once per month. If you want to spend money, buy a literary magazine like First Things, Foreign Affairs, The New Yorker, Johns Hopkins Review, or anything like that. Most issues will probably go unread, but at least you’ll have access to the tree!
I hope these tips have helped. Let me know in the comments how you’ve carved out time for pleasure reading. Don’t feel guilty—That’s why you’re in the garden.
Peace and Blessings,
Royce is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University. He conducts and teaches under the broad theme “SEED”: Strategic [urban] Ecologies, Engineering, and Decision making. His research and teaching interests include infrastructure sustainability and resilience measurement, risk analysis, and drinking water systems analysis. Royce is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).