The first book I remember having a more than fleeting interaction with was Roald Dahl’s The Witches. I must’ve been about five or six, and my mom and I read it every night before bed. Every night I would beg her to please just read me one more chapter. “Vitches of Inklannndddd!” she would scream in her Grand High Witch voice. I was terrified, but needed to know if the boy protagonist would escape his encounters with all those witches.
Although my mom read most of the book, I remember there were times where she would let me read a bit. If I could’ve read the entire thing myself, I would’ve, so I wouldn’t have to wait until nighttime until Mom was ready.
Fast-forwarding to reading as an adult, one piece of advice I would give all incoming graduate students is to never stop reading. Read the popular-audience books in your field. Read outside your field. Read fiction. Read the New Yorker. The cross-disiplinary insight you gain will help you come up with original research questions in your field. The recent devaluation of fiction in our society is, in my opinion, not only sad, but worrisome for our innovative edge in domains like technology. The astute fiction-writer will make ingenious observations about human nature, societies, and technological possibilities well before science can empirically test such hypotheses, and before engineers can build such realities.
Several of my professor friends complain about their (native-speaker) grad students’ writing abilities. To be fair, I’m not talking about people in linguistics, as perhaps the field lends itself particularly well to an appreciation for language. Good writing is tricky to pick up, and one of the best ways is to simply read more. Even after years of training in linguistics, sometimes I have difficulty explaining why a particular written formulation doesn’t flow well: it’s an intuitive knowledge I’ve picked up after reading thousands and thousands of hours of both academic and non-academic literature.
As an undergrad, I initially majored in English and French not to be a linguist, but a creative writer. In an interesting twist of fate, the MFA student-instructor I had in my creative writing seminar as a freshman was obsessed with Hemingway and his reportage-style fiction, which I hated. We once spent half an hour analyzing a line from a Hemingway short that went something like this:
She tasted the tea, and set it down.
I can’t remember the name of the story, and I can’t find the quote online anywhere, but I assure you that it was something about a woman tasting something and setting it down on a plate or saucer. We all had copies of my instructor’s personal copy, so we could see that she had underlined set it down. “What does that mean, she set it down?” she asked. The class hesitated until somebody came up with the answer she was looking for. “She doesn’t like it?” somebody hazarded. “Exactly!” the instructor said. “In this one detail about her actions, Hemingway is giving us a clue into her psychological state.” This is total bullshit, I thought. I had to raise my hand: “All I’m really getting from this is that she set down the cup. I don’t know if we can impute more into it than that — I taste things that I like and set them down all the time.” This view was not encouraged from the class; the other students had spent precious minutes of their lives trying to interpret the “right” way of thinking about this setting down of the cup. I needed out.
Still in the English program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I turned more to the literature side of things and took a class with J.E. Rivers. Rivers turned me on to Nabokov, one of my favorite authors ever, and tolerated my quirkiness, such as writing a critical essay in iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets. He was great, and I don’t think I gave him enough credit for my sticking with English. I sat in my dorm devouring Lolita on a Friday night instead of going out — here was my kind of writing! Hemingway seemed mad at the English language, using the most basic vocabulary with no rhetorical flourish. Nabokov, on the other hand, would romance his prose and make it sing.
In my junior year at the University of Minnesota, I became more interested in linguistics. I felt literary scholarship didn’t focus on language as much as I wanted to. And, it was not scientific enough. I remember a literature discussion section in which we offered our interpretations of the works we were reading. One student came up with interpretation X, and the TA, perhaps desperate for us to contribute, said, “That’s good.” Then another student said that she felt it was the exact opposite of X. “That’s good,” responded the TA again. No, no, no! I thought. This cannot be possible. Both X and the opposite of X cannot be good! At least not the same degree of good! But still, I kept my undergraduate majors of English and French so as to graduate on time.
From that point on, I have never needed to read anything other than works in my field. And although I know academics’ schedules are tight, I’m still amazed at the number of those — without kids, mind you — that don’t read outside their field at all.
Having moved to a new country and started a new job four months ago, I’ve had little time for anything but work and figuring out my new surroundings. For the first month, I would fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Doing nothing but work was making me grumpy, and the situation had to change. Since moving to Edmonton, I’ve not slept much, but I have now managed to read You are not a gadget by Jaron Lanier; The Heart and the fist by Eric Greitens; Rafa, the Rafael Nadal autobiography; Life, on the line by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas; and currently I’m two-thirds into Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. It seems I’ve been on an (auto-)biographical kick of people I find inspiring.
I once read somewhere, although I’ll never be able to find it again, that we read the majority of books that “change our lives” before age 22, or some similarly young age. While this is probably true for me too, I still find a lot of gems out there. Here are just a few of the works outside my field that have deeply impressed me, in rough chronological order of my reading. Please note that these aren’t recommendations per se, as the subject matter of at least the first two aren’t for everyone:
- Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita is pretty well known, so I won’t belabor the point. It’s a great story, written from the unapologetic perspective of a wry middle-aged European professor transplanted to America. You know it’s good when you find yourself cheering at atrocious turns of events despite yourself. Example: when Charlotte Haze finds out about Humbert’s love for her young daughter but then is immediately killed by a car while running across the street. It’s terrible, right? But Charlotte was just getting in the way of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Good literature should challenge your intelligence.
- Love in a dead language, by Lee Siegel. I saw this book on the shelf when I was working for an independent bookstore. The cover and, as you can imagine, the title, intrigued me.
This novel has a ton going on in it. First there’s the not-so-subtle Lolita spoof. Second, it’s written on several different levels. An Indologist prof (which, by the way, author Siegel happens to be) plans a field trip to India to seduce the only student he’s taking with him, Lalita Gupta. The main text is his diary/translation of the Kamasutra. But he mysteriously dies before the project can be published, and his frustrated grad student is left to edit the text, which he does with footnotes and multi-media examples, such as an example paper of Lalita’s (all academics can relate). Those who find it over-the-top don’t get it: that’s the point. This book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but was too far out there to win.
- The Importance of being Ernest, by Oscar Wilde. This work is also well known, so I’ll just say that in reading it, I saw that conversation could be an art form, not just a means of communication. That was a fun revelation to have, and it fostered my interest in language and hence linguistics.
- Mémoires d’Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian). As a French major in the U.S., you normally read The Canon of French literature, and for some reason Marguerite Yourcenar’s works often aren’t included. I would say they’re a little complicated for the sheltered U.S. foreign-language university classes, but we read plenty of Racine and Molière, and 300-350 years passing can really complicate a text. So I moved to France without knowing too many French authors I liked. I asked a friend of my roommate’s, a professor of English literature in Dijon, who to read, given that I liked Nabokov, D. H. Lawrence, Siegel, etc. He suggested Marguerite Yourcenar, and particularly Mémoires. I was a bit skeptical at first, since a pseudo-autobiography of a Roman emperor didn’t sound too appealing. But it was very well written, taking the form of a letter in which Hadrian retraces his life as he’s close to death. It’s quite moving, and I’m told the English translation is well done. After this, I went on to read many other Yourcenar books: they’re all good.
- Diffusion of innovations, by Everett Rogers. This non-fiction book discusses the diffusion of several types of innovations across many different societies. I cannot proselytize enough about this book, especially to sociolinguists. The modest uptake in citations to this book from linguists has only happened recently, despite the first edition coming out in 1962. As of November 29, 2011, this book has 38,418 citations on Google Scholar. Why? It’s relevant to almost every field in social sciences, and it’s extremely well written, including a great organization scheme and index. Even if you’re not in academia, this book would still be fun to read.
A couple of years ago, I got the opportunity to babysit a cousin of mine, who was five at the time, on a weekly basis. Samuel has an excellent imagination, and loves books. Of course I immediately thought we could read The Witches together. I imagined reading it in the same tone my mom read to me in: “Vitches of Inklannndddd!!!” I started the book, and Samuel was spellbound. But soon it became apparent that he wasn’t scared and loving it, he was just scared. We didn’t even make it to the Grand High Witch. He was fine with dragons in his closet, and an entire people he’s invented named the Gee-Gees, but hearing about witches was too much. “Let’s not read that anymore Paula,” Samuel said. I really wanted to read it, so I made sure to tell him it was make-believe. But that didn’t assuage his fears any, and I didn’t want to traumatize him, so I gave it up. With my own kids though, I just don’t know what I would do if they didn’t want to read The Witches. I have few dreams about being a parent, but that is one of them.