(Note: I wrote this to try to work through a moment of anxiety to get to a more positive motivation for reading. Self-reassurement is a weird thing to write, but it helped somehow.)
“I should be reading” is one of the refrains of a scholar’s life. And I do love reading; I’ve loved it since I was a small child, when I stuffed my little backpack full of books, long ones, for the twice-a-week, four-hour-round-trips to cello lessons (I love music, too). I still pack a bag full of books on trips, and now I stuff them onto a Kindle as well. So I am disposed to enjoy this refrain.
My father was always impressed by how fast I tore through books in the way back seat of the van (“you only started that Little House book when we left?!”) and nowadays I can still feel my reading speed increase. It’s increasing in reading scholarly prose, though, and not fiction. It hasn’t been nearly as much fun. But thank goodness it has sped up, because I’m facing one of the biggest reading challenges I ever will.
In my field and in my department, the doctoral students have to pass through a qualifying exam process that involves both written and oral examinations on a list of approximately 100 texts that is selected by the student and the examining committee. It sounds like something that should’ve been in Bunyan or Homer, a trial along the path of an epic quest with a fancy new robe at the end. On further thought, maybe it just belongs in a second-rate fantasy novel.
People both inside and outside my academic circle keep asking me how I’m doing. I give a variety of responses: I’m scared, I’m working hard, I’m anxious. A tiny part of me is excited because I already want to be proud of the accomplishment. But mostly I’m worried. I’m worried that this will be the point where I can’t read anymore. Or rather, where I can’t read well anymore. This task is gigantic; is my brain really good enough to capture all this? It doesn’t seem possible to read these texts well enough in just a few weeks that I could adequately answer questions about them. It’s not possible to work hard enough.
I have sat practice questions for mock versions of the written exam, and the professors assured me I did well. The grad students ahead of me say “if they passed me, they’ll pass you.” These things are meant to give me comfort and confidence, and they’re effective for about 20 seconds. Then the anxiety comes back.
I’ve known this anxiety before. It’s built out of the performance jitters that made me rehearse cello and vocal pieces and my drive for perfection that makes me want to make perfect replicas when I do props for shows and the sense of achievement when things go well after I’ve planned them so carefully. I know how my mind moves between the edges of anxiety and excitement, back and forth, and how that emotional loop becomes a force for success. So on top of what everyone else is telling me, I say to myself “You’ve done this before. You can do it again.” And it helps focus the anxiety, at least for longer than a few seconds. And it’s followed by the thought:
“But really, you should be reading.”