As a grad student in philosophy, I often run across a curious piece of advice: too much reading is a bad thing! As someone who has learned almost everything I know through reading, this notion surprised me when I first heard it. I had always thought philosophers should strive to read as much as possible to expand the breadth of their knowledge. When was the last time you walked into a full professors office and saw a tiny little bookshelf? Often, books are spilling out of their offices! But given I keep hearing this advice about reading “too much”, is there something to it?
There are at least three types of warnings I’ve heard about the “dangers” of reading too much. The first worry is that by reading too much you will never have the chance to write and publish. The worry I guess is that if you spend your whole graduate career trying to read everything under the sun but never write anything, then inevitably you will not complete the dissertation. Call this the “neverending lit review” problem.
The second warning about reading too much is that it’s better to engage in face-to-face philosophical discussions, what some philosophers like to think as where “real” philosophy happens. I am in agreement, to a point. I love discussing philosophy, and will go all night. But reading a book is equivalent to having a one-sided conversation. And if the author is a genius, then reading their books is equivalent to having a conversation with a genius. How is that not valuable? The written words allows for the transmission of thought, and thoughts are meaningful whether they are spoken or not. Besides, how else are we going to learn from history? Dead people still have insightful things to tell us.
The third warning concerns the drying up of creative juices by letting others do your thinking for you. The worry is that by reading too much you become a kind of philosophical puppet. Here philosophers like to quote authorities to support their contention:
Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. ~ Albert Einstein
Reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for yourself; it means letting someone else direct your thoughts. ~Schopenhauer
I take it this last concern is that by reading too much, you dilute your mind with other people’s opinions instead of coming up with “your own” view. However, grad students who say these things in practice end up in a worse predicament than adopting the views of people they read: adopting the view of just one person: their adviser! Realistically, what are the chances that a single person at a single institution has all the answers? Slim to none. Better to seek the opinion of many experts, not just one, otherwise you risk philosophical myopia.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I would fall into the “reading too much” category. I devour books and never get full. But I daresay that my drive to read everything under the sun has not hampered my writing productivity, prevented me from publishing, or hampered my philosophical creativity. Quite the contrary as readers of this blog might guess. As for the point about letting others do my thinking, how could this be true if I often find myself silently shouting “No!” when I read something I disagree with? Reading can be a way to figure out where people stand on issues, and thus, a way to orient yourself in the conceptual landscape. It is possible to critically engage with a book, to highlight points of both alignment and contention.
I take all this advice about reading too much to be a point about tradeoffs. You shouldn’t read all the time and never write your thoughts down and vice versa. You will fail as an academic (esp. a philosopher) if you never write anything down, but you will also fail if you never read anything. The flipside of “reading too much” is of course “reading too little”. The worry here is that if you don’t read extensively you take the very likely risk of reinventing the wheel, a great way to get banished to the sidelines of philosophical discourse.
In conclusion, my advice would be to maximize reading, writing, and thinking. Ceteris paribus, you should read as much as humanly possible without sacrificing writing and thinking. The ceteris clause is in there because there is a hint of truth in the advice about reading too much. If all you do is read, that is probably bad. But if you can also write and think while you read excessively, then wouldn’t that be better? Isn’t it a compliment for academics to say of someone else that “They are well read”? I would never take that as an insult.