By Joern Fischer
With the year coming to an end, it’s a good time to reflect, and think about what to do differently next year. For some of us, myself included, that includes “doing a better job of keeping on top of the literature”. Many of us feel perpetually “behind” in our reading, with so much important new stuff coming out all the time.
Just to counter-balance my own resolution (that I ought to read more), here’s a couple of arguments against reading more. First of all, most of the stuff we read is in fact not important at all, but rather trivial. Most new science is, essentially, boring. Major insights are rare, and those, indeed, are worth reading. So perhaps it’s more about having an awareness of what’s around us (in terms of new science), but then picking up only the bits actually worth pursuing. Those, quite possibly, are no greater in volume than they were years ago.
Second, I’d argue that — somewhat counter-intuitively — even reading can be one of those “busy” activities that keep us from doing what is actually important — namely thinking and reflecting. Especially when we read under pressure, we don’t use reading as an activity to reflect, but rather as busy-must-do tasks. By ticking off readings at fast pace there’s a good chance we won’t actually process any of it deeply enough to truly expand our own horizons. That, in turn, would suggest that in some cases it might be good to read less rather than more… (sounds like a convenient excuse anyway! )
Anyway, the point is to recognise that the ultimate goal of insight is only partly reachable by the proximate goal of more reading. More fundamentally, it’s important to create time and space to reflect about all the various bits of information that do reach us all the time. A lack of information (e.g. from a lack of reading) is very unlikely to be the stumbling block for greater human wisdom. A lack of time taken to reflect on that information, on the other hand, quite possibly could be a major stumbling block for many modern-era academics.
I have no idea how to balance all this either. So one of my new year’s resolutions simply is to keep trying to find that balance: between “doing” and reflecting — to make sure that what I ultimately do embark on has a chance of being worthwhile.