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Reading is dead, long live the book

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The first week of teaching is always a bit of a culture shock. The transition at the end of term from teaching to other activities and vice versa marks a change of tempo and a change of focus. For me, the summer is a time of immersion in reading, thinking and writing. All of these activities continue throughout the year but far less intensively. It’s is perhaps ironic then, that this week’s blog post has left me struggling for ideas…

Previously, I have blogged about the stresses and strains of writing, so this week I thought I might turn my attention to reading; a far more pleasurable personal experience. The first questions is why read? The simple answer is to accumulate knowledge, to find the answer to a question and to educate and entertain. Arguably, all of these purposes can be achieved far more easily by looking on the internet, getting a quick (if not always correct) answer. Why bother learning things when the internet can provide information 24 hours a day?  Furthermore, who can fail to find something to entertain and amuse on the television, in the cinema or on the internet? Perhaps the death knell for the old-fashioned art of reading books is sounding with increasing urgency and volume? I disagree!

I learnt to read at around the age of 5 and very quickly I was hooked. Throughout my childhood I was teased for my seeming inability to put a book down even with eating or walking. This never dissuaded me away from the book and even when that one was finished, there would always be another one to take its place. This reading “addiction” has never left me and has meant that I have been able to explore mythical places such as Eastasia, Erewhon, Gilead, Lilliput, Manderley, Narnia and Utopia and without even leaving my armchair. I have explored America, Australia, Botswana, Germany, India, the Netherlands and South Africa to a name a few, not to mention my home city, both over ground and underground. In my reading life, I have travelled on the Orient Express, fought in the American Civil War, WWI and WWII, hidden from Nazis, as well as served prison sentences in Reading Gaol and Robben Island. I have solved crimes with Mikael Blomkvist, Scout Finch, the Famous Five and Hercule Poirot. I have felt the pains of Lady MacBeth, Jane Eyre and the second Mrs de Winter, been left unmoved by Flora Poste and Jay Gatsby and felt terrorised with Joanna Eberhart, Offred and Gregor Samsa.

Whilst the above may illustrate my love of reading, it does not really explain why it is so important to me and my career. For one, it is the only activity that really holds my concentration, particularly for extended periods of time. In the twenty-first century, where life seems so fast-paced and we jump from screen to screen, triggered by notifications as if we are one of Pavlov’s dogs, such a skill requires protection and cultivation. Second, it is intensely independent and personal; I can share stories with others, I can even discuss books in detail, but my reading is my own. Thirdly, and probably the most important for criminology is the opportunity to try someone else’s life for size. The famous line from Harper Lee; that ; ‘[y]ou never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’ sums this up beautifully (1960/2006: 30). By reading accounts of crime, criminality, victimisation and criminal justice; even if fictionalised, we have an opportunity to test out ideas, to find out how comfortable we are with responses, actions and penalties. In particular, dystopic novels offer the unique potential to imagine the world differently. Whilst on the surface such texts, as with criminology, are presented as negative; dealing with uncomfortable, frightening and disturbing behaviours and responses, they are ultimately full of hope. The potential for change is both explicit and implicit in dystopic fiction and criminology; all is never lost, hope remains no matter what.

If you still need to be persuaded by my argument for reading everything and anything that can get your hands on, perhaps Beccaria’s words of wisdom will help ‘I should have everything to fear, if tyrants were to read my book, but tyrants never read’ (1872: 18).

And after all, who wants to be a tyrant? Not me!

 

Beccaria, Cesare, (1872), An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, (Albany: W. C. Little Co.), [online]. Available from: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2193&Itemid=27 [Last accessed 24 March 2012]

Lee, Harper, (1960/2006), To Kill A Mockingbird, (London: Arrow Books)

Back to school (again)!

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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve revisited my life as a student. That’s not to say I haven’t been studying on a regular basis, but the last fortnight or so has seen a return to more “intensive” times. Having c. 20,000 words to prepare for Ph.D transfer, plus a rationale to tie it all together has led to some very late nights, not to mention days in the library.  With the presentation still to prepare, not to mention the thesis, this looks likely to continue for some time. As an undergraduate student I was fortunate enough to study full-time and work part-time; this time the roles are reversed.

As an undergraduate, you get into the flow gradually; at the beginning the dissertation appears impossible; how can anyone write 10-12,000 words on just one subject when you’re struggling to write 1,000? By the time you get to that point, the question changes; how can I be expected to get everything I want to say into just 10-12,000 words? The process and progress is gradual and at times, haphazard; when you are in the throes of studying, success can be almost imperceptible. It is only at the end when you can really begin to consider how far you have come, from that early timorous foray into academic life. By the time you get to graduation you have forgotten the anxieties which often go hand-in-hand with academia.

Although I have studied more or less constantly, since taking my first hesitant steps back into education via an Access course, it’s been some time since I have been confronted by word counts and deadlines. For almost a decade, I’ve been setting them for other people rather than be subject to them myself. It’s come as quite a shock!

I’d forgotten how painful writing can be, especially to deadlines, reliving all the old anxieties and noticing the feelings of inadequacy flooding back. Not only trying to satisfy curiosity, develop understanding and construct arguments, there is also the knowledge that this is not private, your output is designed for an audience, albeit small. When I start writing, it is if I am back in primary school, trying to make sentences which not only make sense, but say what you want them to say. Trying to ensure that the words you choose are not going to bore your audience into submission and yet still get your message across. The perpetual internal competition, between wanting to give up and wanting to succeed, seems to grow ever more insistent the more you write.

So why do it? Why not just walk away, do something less painful, less challenging, less meaningful? Why bother with education when you don’t have to? The answer for me, as with all of us, is intensely personal and largely integral to my own sense of being. Even to put my rationale/motivation into words is extremely difficult; I’m not sure I have the words to do justice to the experience. Fortunately, some years ago my daughter did find the words; replace Philosophical/Philosophy with Criminological/Criminology and you’ll get the gist….

 

The Philosophical Orgasm

 

Philosophy is difficult. You can read the same piece over and over, making little progress each time, losing faith and on the verge of giving up and then… something happens. The fog clears, everything slots into place, the philosophy offers itself up to you, the tension subsides and your whole being is filled with warmth and understanding; new clarity dawns. This moment is something many of you will be familiar with. It comes on quickly, and strong. And it changes the way you understand forever. You’ve taken it, conquered it, made it yours. Borges sums it up perfectly; in that moment of clarity we become part of something larger than ourselves – we access that shared knowledge (shared, that is, by all those who have gone before, who have walked the same path) and can speak the words as our own. Some people call this the ‘Eureka!’ moment, but I am inclined to say there is even more to it than that. The Ancient Greek εὕρηκα translates roughly as ‘I have found it!’, hence its association with scientific discovery. We can all recall the story of Archimedes jumping out of his bath and running naked through the street exclaiming ‘eureka!’ upon his discovery that the volume of water displaced in his bath was equal to the volume of the part of his body that was submerged. In the case of philosophical understanding, something more personal is going on. It is not merely a case of seeing how concepts operate within arguments – the understanding goes deeper than that, is internalised, changes you. It’s like an orgasm in your mind, that permeates your whole being. The more difficult the philosophy you are trying to grasp, the more intense the orgasm. It isn’t about finding a solution to a problem, it’s about augmenting your ideas in preparation for the next exploration. On each subsequent journey, you’ll take those new ideas along with you. (Saffron Garside).

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