This year I’ve been keeping a list of all the books I’d read. I’ve done this before (and I’ll write more about why at the end of the year), but not consistently (I’ll write about that too). I had a look over the reading list for this year and was struck by how few books I put on the list from my thesis reading.
It’s November and there are only 8 books that I’d read from cover to cover. I found that somewhat surprising – but on reflection, not at all surprising.
The PhD is a peculiar beast, as I’d noted elsewhere, which means that the kind of research you do for it is also peculiar. I simply don’t have time to read every secondary text in full, no matter how much I’d like to. Indexes are my friends – I look for the discussion of what I’m working on, get the arguments I need and move on.
I devote much more time to primary sources – I try to make sure I read the texts I’m actually writing about very carefully and usually more than once (except Malebranche’s the Search After Truth because it’s an absolute brick).
This reflection on reading reminded me of a passage I’d read in Malebranche’s text recently:
“There are people thirty years of age who quote more evil books for you in their works than they could have read in several centuries, and nevertheless they hope to convince others that they have read them very closely.”
Thanks Nicolas, I feel seen.
I always intended to use the blog to reflect on the progress of my PhD as I write it. I’ve not been good at this, but consider this me trying to make amends.
This is an opportune moment for me to reflect on how much I’ve done, since I’d just put a bow on one of my chapters and I’m shifting gears to read things for the next major section of the project.
At this point, I’ve written five chapters (of a planned seven). They’re each about 7500 words, so I’m looking at just over 50k words before I get into the introduction and conclusion, and before I get into editing. Editing invariably leads to things expanding, so I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the word count.
The thesis is a particular genre in that it is garbage. People often talk about the requirement for the thesis being “advancing knowledge in the discipline” – but this doesn’t really gel with it’s ultimate audience being my supervisors and my two examiners. I can imagine nothing worse than writing 70-80k words over three years just to impress four people. Not to mention, it’s hard to see the contribution to knowledge made by something only four people are likely to read.
For this reason, I’m gambling a bit and not writing a thesis but a monograph. Given the requirements of the degree, the aim is then to write something as far from a thesis as possible (with it’s needless literature reviews and such) while still satisfying the requirements of my degree. The hope is that at the end, I’ll be able to quickly convert the manuscript into something a publisher would be interested in, and hit the job market with a book contract in hand.
The pragmatism behind this all makes me somewhat cynical. While it’s obvious that one needs a PhD to have an academic job – a job I’d very much like to get – it’s not clear to me that the goal of getting a job after the PhD can consistently be held with the goal of advancing the discipline.
For me, the reality is that my PhD in itself isn’t worth much on the job market. Not that anyone’s is. But I’m in a mid-tier university – prestigious and well known enough in Australia, but not so much outside. All things being equal, if you had to choose between someone with a prestigious North American PhD and me, I’m not likely to win.
What will distinguish my CV from others are the publications – the more and the more prestigious the better. But churning out papers that are publishable and churning out good papers that are publishable isn’t the same thing. Wanting to actually advance the discipline in my work is much harder than merely wanting to get published.
So I’m forced to have two goals contrary to one another – publish a lot, and publish good things (a lot).
My gamble is that with my thesis project I can avoid the issue somewhat, by getting a book out quickly and making myself stand out in the job market that way.
So how’s this all going?
- 5/7 chapters written
- Introduction is partly drafted
- Conclusion doesn’t exist yet
- 1 co-authored paper is on it’s way to publication (in an edited collection – more details on this once it’s all finalised)
- 1 paper is currently under review (it was rejected twice so far: once with feedback, once by the editor – more on this if and when it gets accepted anywhere)
- 1 paper is drafted but just needs a few finishing touches before I submit it somewhere.
There are also two projects I’m trying to get together:
- a response to one of the calls for papers in the Australasian Philosophical Review\
- a paper on some issues in Stoic and Epicurean philosophy (with an, as yet, ill-defined topic).
Beyond this, I’m switching gears to write the next section of the thesis. If you follow me on twitter you’ll have seen that at least part of that will be on Malebranche. I’m slowly making my way through his The Search After Truth – trying to figure out what he takes from Descartes’ theory of the passions. I’d not had a chance to read Malebranche before, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the text – it’s much more accessible than many of his contemporaries. Though, I suppose a lot of this comes down to the translation.
This week I finished Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and started Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. The two texts are very different in many ways. Roy’s book is extremely political while Pessoa’s is introspective. The both made me pause in different ways, and while I’d usually avoid talking about a text I’m still reading, the The Book of Disquiet is having such an effect on me that I’m finding it hard to stop talking about it.
I was excited to pick up Roy’s book since I’d read her previous novel, The God of Small Things (1997), and thought it was extraordinary. I thought the new one was also very good, but I’m more reluctant to talk about it.
It’s not only a very political work, but a very timely one. The novel is set against the background of the complex history of Kashmir as a semi-autonomous, or even independent territory between India and Pakistan, and considers the lives of the people stuck in what seems like a perpetual conflict. I’m reluctant to have too strong an opinion about it because it demands a grasp of context that is beyond mind. And I worry that for many readers the book will be the only context – and given the complexity of the situation, that’s likely not a good thing.
The current troubles in Kashmir aren’t new, but a continuation of a long history that I’m not very close to.
Being familiar mostly with Roy’s fiction and only broadly conscious of her political works and leanings I’d consider her well placed to write a book enmeshed in the history of this particular conflict. And perhaps she has done that well. The success of the book, however, lays in showing the deep roots of the relationship Kashmir has to its neighbours. The intersection of geopolitics, religion, nationalism, and culture forms an abyss the bottom of which is invisible to casual onlookers. Maybe the abyss itself is invisible, given how little attention Western media has given to the current wave of trouble in the region?
In any case, it is this abyss of context that stands before me as a wall over which I can peer, but which stops me from giving in to my tendency to have an opinion. I could climb over it – but the one thing Roy’s book has succeeded at is showing me just how little I understand of the context, so that would be futile.
I mention all of this because I read the book at a point where I’d begun forcing myself to articulate my thoughts on what I read a bit more explicitly (which is also one of the occasions of me reviving the blog as a place to think out loud in public). It’s just my luck then that the first book I pick up is one on which I think articulating my thoughts might be irresponsible.
But it did make me think about the responsibility one has as critic, to bring out the context and to help the reader grasp it. A responsibility I myself hadn’t always been very conscious of, and which I think it is increasingly important to uphold.
Not all works demand such context, perhaps.
This is why Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is a fortunate choice of reading to follow Roy’s book with.
I imagine what I think will change several more times as I read the book and I hope to write some thoughts about it another time. But one thing that I am struck with immediately is how well it sets out its own context. The fragments collected here let us into a world that belonged entirely to Pessoa in his lifetime.
The edition I own (trans. Margaret Jull Costa, ed. Maria José de Lancastre) is a masterwork of literary translation. I could pause on each sentence and try forever to articulate what it is that makes it genius. The words aren’t even Pessoa’s any more – they’re the translator’s. But they leave openings to interpretation, and ultimately here the context isn’t so necessary. The fragmentary nature of the work, the fact most of the fragments are undated and thus impossible to order (no that there is much of a discernible narrative anyhow). This removes all context and lets the reader get lost within the work itself, on its own terms.
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I’m slowly making my way through Malebranche’s magnum opus, The Search After Truth – so far its a super fun text. Malebranche spends a lot of time in the first two major sections on criticising his contemporaries for their lack of clear thinking. This quote is just a small sample – but there are many many others in the first two books of this text. Not long after this passage, he moves on to criticising some prior thinkers: Tertullian, Seneca, and Montaigne. He’s particularly strong worded about Montaigne, of whom he says that “He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so.” Malebranche is by no means an exception in his harsh words about other thinkers. We see this happen today as well – with some prominent philosophers having a reputation for just how mean they are about others. Personally, I think this sort of adversarial attitude hurts us more than helps.