When I was in grad school, one of the more interesting traditions I was forced to complete was known as the “Reading Year.” It was the beginning of the process for selecting a dissertation topic, and it involved working through a list of books many pages long. In general, it took most people about one academic year to get through the list, whose purpose was to expose the student to the important books in a field prior to any discussion of research focus in the coming years.
About ten years ago, I revived the Reading Year concept, in part because I was more or less reading randomly — a science book here, a history book there, etc., and that approach sometimes left me without a clear sense of where all the reading was taking me. That year, on New Year’s eve, I picked a topic, using the guidelines that it had to be something that was (a) interesting and (b) broad enough to support a whole year’s worth of reading. My inaugural topic was “Mathematics,” and I made the resolution to focus my (non-work related) book buying and reading on that single topic. On January 1st, I started with David Berlinksi’s A Tour of the Calculus and off I went. The result of my experiment was amazing, at least to me. Each book not only took me deep into a subject I had sometimes last encountered in college, it frequently opened my eyes to a connection between that topic and something (a book, idea, place, person) that I wold never have explored otherwise. Indeed, I have sometimes been excited enough to contact an author or person mentioned, and I have found most of them happy and eager to discuss their ideas and books with me.
Since that initial Reading Year, I’ve been lucky enough to pick some great topics, and a few really stand out. “The American West” was one. That year, S. C. Gwynn’s Empire of the Summer Moon (the story of the Comanches) and Robert W. Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs (a biography of James K. Polk) completely changed my understanding of U.S.’ conquest of the West. Another first rate topic was “The Mind,” which ended up focusing a lot on psychiatry and neurology. That year, Nancy McWilliams’ Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process (which should be requited reading for anyone in business) and Salman Ahktar’s Psychoanalytic Listening: Methods, Limits, and Innovations taught me much about how to understand and listen to people, and both books influence my business and personal life to this day. “Cosmology” was a hard but ultimately exciting topic, and Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story and Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe both walked me through ideas and discussions I had never fully understood. Last year’s topic, “Sound,” a choice my friends questioned but ultimately yielded some intriguing ideas I am still digesting. For example, Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds is a short and accessible book about how every day sounds shape us; at the other extreme, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art is a complex survey of academic points of view about the philosophy of sound and noise. As an amateur musician, I found the latter especially interesting, since it exposed me to a lot of cutting edge ideas and sounds/music that I would not have encountered otherwise.
As the new year starts, a Reading Year approach might help to focus your reading as well. Indeed, my topic for this year is “Light.” I started with Ian Walmsley’s Light: A Very Short Introduction and have now picked up QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard Feynman. I expect this year will be a diverse one, ranging from physics to photography to maybe even architecture and design. On the other hand, it might lead me to chemistry or philosophy or something I can’t imagine at this point. That’s the beauty of the Reading Year. It’s like visiting a country with only a vague agenda of what you hope to see and then letting the first stop either confirm your next destination or point you in a completely new direction.
Anyone interested in joining me for “Light,” — or if you have a suggestion — let me know. I would be happy to share this trip with any other explorers so inclined.