In a recent interview Joss Whedon gives a bit of advice that I think every student and intellectual needs to hear: “fill the tanks”:
Constantly watch things and things you don’t [normally watch]. Step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It’s all fodder but if you only take from one thing then it’ll show… My vacation from Buffy.. was… two weeks every year, and in that vacation I read, in 14 days, 10 books. My wife and I saw like nine plays, and that’s all we did. We just filled the tanks.
To do most things that we want to do as students, teachers, researches, and thinkers, we simply need raw material. We need our tanks filled. This is a central point of fieldwork — to just load up on experience and let your self slowly sort it out at levels conscious and un-. But it is also true of any life of reading and writing.
I teach at a large state school where a lot of students are the first people in their families to go to college. At times I feel a good 20-30% of my job is Generic Horizon Expansion: pointing people in the direction of books, movies, and music. I sometimes get comments like “you mean someone wrote a whole book on Reggae?” or “I wish someone wrote a book about, you know, the ocean.” In some ways being a professor involves being an enormous human version of Amazon’s “Customers who bought this item also bought…”. Giving people high quality fuel is particularly important today when such a staggering amount of human knowledge and expression is available for free or extremely cheap — and in such quantities that finding what’s right for you gets harder and harder.
Giving people the right recommendation to fill their tank is an incredible art and I’m in awe of people who do it well. Most of the time when asked for suggestions on things to read professors usually respond “well, there’s no one thing on this but I’d recommend…” and there’s a torrent of about fifteen books and articles, peppered with the names of intellectual schools and scholarly movements which you’ve never heard of. A lot of time, this tank-filling advice is really a list of things you should read at the end of a research project, not at the beginning.
Good advice (as far as I can tell) is really about giving someone a first thing to read — the door that opens into a wider literature, the first breadcrumb of a much longer trail. It requires knowing what is accessible to noobs, not what is necessarily the most current or encyclopedic piece in your field. And it requires trying to match the reading to the reader, something which is quite a task in an of itself.
But back to the perspective of the reader: yes. Fill the tanks. There is no substitute for just filling your tanks. Burrowing down into a specialist literature is important, of course. But as Whedon says, reading things that are off-topic, or which only obliquely approach your topic is useful as well. For one thing, a lot of times they’re a lot easier to read than specialist literature, which means that you can fill up your tanks during your free time and feel like you’ve gotten something done. During a recent cross-country flight I pounded back Netflixed. It was a fun book with great nonfiction storytelling about something that is a regular part of my life. At the end of the flight, I felt like I had filled my tanks instead of throwing my time and attention into the garbage can that is the solitaire app on my iPad.
At the end of the day, of course, it doesn’t matter what you read. I’m sure that throwaway romance novels will help you somehow, in some tangential way, in your academic career. But only if you read a lot of them, and a lot of everything else. Being creative and prolific is about looking into yourself for your inspiration, sure, but the best ideas come when your interior gas tanks are full.