Reading Fiction in Grad School

During my first year in my PhD program, my mother bought me the first five books in a mystery series as a birthday gift. I was both pleased and frustrated. Pleased because it was a series I wanted to read and annoyed because I knew the books would sit on a shelf, unread, as I worked through readings for class (my birthday falls in the beginning of the Spring semester). And, indeed, three and a half years later I’ve only read three of the books. For someone who loves to read, graduate programs can be a mixed blessing, especially if the Shoulds and Ought-Tos of the grad student mindset make you feel guilty for reading anything that’s not directly related to your degree.

two shelves of books, a ukulele on the top shelf.
My books, my father’s ukulele.

I have, however, just found a solution which works for me. A few weeks ago, a friend posted an article on Facebook reiterating that it’s a bad idea to have screen time just before you fall asleep. This article states that the National Sleep Foundation suggests reading actual paper books as a relaxing activity. Hardly a new thought, at least for me. The number of bedtimes which were extended just long enough to “finish this chapter!” in my childhood probably exceeds the number which went as scheduled. Yet like many people my bedtime book had been replaced by bedtime apps, checking social media one last time before setting the alarm app and trying to sleep.

After reading the article, I decided to experiment. For the last three weeks I’ve kept a book on the nightstand. I read one or two chapters each night or, in the case of the current volume, one short story. Admittedly, I broke my “one or two” rule when I got down to the final four chapters of a mystery novel because I just had to find out what happened. I can’t say for certain that I’ve been sleeping more soundly, but I am enjoying the downtime. I don’t feel guilty for reading, because just before bed was never a time I did academic work anyway. Nor do I feel guilty for devouring a book in a single afternoon in an attempt to enjoy some fiction without taking up too much time. Although the Chapter Before Bed might not work for everyone, I know that I have found a sweet spot which lets me enjoy fiction without stressing about my reading habits.

Reading Sherlock Holmes

Preface: this was written as an entry for a contest on the blog of author Laurie R. King. I didn’t win, but thought I might post it here, with a little introduction for relevance.

I grew up with mysteries as a form of entertainment: the program Mystery! on PBS, and books like the Encyclopedia Brown series. The challenge was, and still is, to try and figure out what’s happened before the author tells you.

In historical research, there isn’t an author to tell you the solution. It is entirely up to you to ferret out all the clues and then reach your own conclusions (hopefully supported by the evidence!). I wanted to be like Sherlock Holmes and Jessica Fletcher when I was a kid; being a historian is, in a lot of ways, fulfilling that dream.

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