Reading habits evolve with life changes

May 18, 2024 | 12:00 am PT
Nga Than Researcher
Reading has always been my preferred method to deeply understand and learn about the world. That's how I retain factoids, arguments, and keep my focus sharp.

Looking back on my reading journey, I have realized how much my habits have evolved over the years.

As a teenager, I preferred reading non-fictions and memoirs. During a visit to my parents a couple of months ago, I noticed Bill Clinton's massive memoir still dominating my childhood's bookshelf. The cover is strikingly bright, featuring Bill Clinton flashing his signature smile. It's impossible to miss such a book on anyone's bookshelf. Probably during those years, I was driven by the realization that reading was critical for academic success. My reading goal was to maximize number of pages, of factoids I read and retained daily. That's why I gravitated towards non-fiction, history, and memoirs of notable people like Bill Clinton.

Then during college, I read more memoirs but not just for information. I read those by Holocaust survivors, and accounts of women's rights advocates in Victorian England. They served as a lens to view and understand the historical periods and cultures far removed from my own. History fascinated me. It was enthralling to explore memoirs and novels for their historical values rather than their literary merits. I have never been much of a literary person, struggling with themes, symbols, personal relationships in texts. However, the connections between personal troubles, and historical struggles have always fascinated me.

In graduate school, I mastered the art of reading books quickly with a very specific purpose in mind: to grasp the arguments and connect with other scholars studying the same research questions. Essentially, I was training to become a scholar learning diverse approaches to craft arguments and present evidence in social sciences. However, it was this period that I discovered the powerful impact of fiction. For one year in graduate school, I took a course titled: "Writing for Publication." This course aimed to initiate young graduate students into the life of scholarly writing. One learned that writing was both the tool and the trade, something that a scholar would practice day and night. This was not a research class but one focused on overcoming writer’s block and freeing one’s imagination. More importantly I discovered the courage writers must muster to share their work with the public. Even when most writing seems imperfect to its creator, it can only be truly evaluated after the public has had a chance to experience it. I loved this class because it let me delve into fiction to learn how to craft beautiful sentences and to start publishing imperfect writings. My professors believed that "one ought to learn how to write from best writers, and fiction writers usually surpass researchers in this art." Fiction re-entered my life playing a completely new role.

I used to dread reading a work of fiction. I often blamed myself for not writing well in high school. I managed passable grades in college literature courses. I never truly enjoyed literature courses, feeling trapped by standard methods like character or symbol analysis. It seemed there were always hidden meanings in the texts that I am too uneducated--or too naïve—to decipher. So rather than appreciating good writing, I focused on the logic of my own writing and its structure, as those were the elements most visible to me.

I steered clear of fiction most of my academic life, until the tail end of my graduate school years. Then, I had a sudden revelation: fictional works were incredible. I was no longer reading for classes, no longer dissecting characters, or hunting for symbolism in dense texts. Now I read solely for the beauty of the prose and the believable world-building. Those elements became my sole focus. Fiction re-entered my reading this way.

Then I started noticing scholars around me, particularly those who wrote brilliant books consumed a lot of novels. Their reading ranged widely, from historical fiction to science fiction. At one point, I developed a slight preference for Asian American writers, and the genre of immigration narratives. Later, I moved on to classic collections recommended by friends. I also started browsing The New York Review of Books, or The Paris Review of Books to discover new reads. Sometimes I visited local bookstores to explore new authors, new titles. I tried to support emerging novelists. Reading has become more enjoyable, and less of a burden. I no longer pursue this reading process like I was in graduate school anymore. I only fit novels into my life whenever I can.

A constant through my years in school and now as a corporate worker is that reading helps me focus on specific topics I care about. Writing then brings clarity to the messiness of daily life and work. It also helps me connect personal feelings and questions with larger global issues like economic shifts and societal changes. Together reading and writing help me make sense of the world. This helps me navigate life more confidently, avoiding feelings of confusion and loss, and keeps me grounded, even when I am just trying to stay afloat.

Anyhow, if being asked what books I am reading nowadays, I would mention two: "The Gilded Cage" by Ya-wen Lei, a brilliant sociologist at Harvard University whom I had the pleasure of lunching with at a conference, and "Slow Productivity" by computer scientist Cal Newport. These are the books that help me make sense of my current work and life. They might not answer all the questions I have, but they for sure give me some perspective, or direction to find the answers.

*Nga Than is a senior data scientist, living in New York City.

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