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How We Read: Reading as a Job

The Books We Read Blog is conducting a series of interviews with contributors and friends of the blog to get a snapshot of our reading habits: the things we like to read, the circumstances in which we read, and more.

Nick Allred has been with Books We Read since its conception in all possible roles such as literature expert, author, content designer, and occasional wizard as Nearly-PhD Nick. This last role is a moot point after he had defended his dissertation. He recently also shared the experience of what it means to get a PhD in literature in blog posts. Read all blog posts written by Nicholas Allred.

What kinds of books do you like to read?
As a scholar in literary studies reading is part of my job, so it’s sometimes a challenge to differentiate pleasure reading from that! When I’m reading purely for fun, I often find myself seeking out general-audience nonfiction (rather than the more specialized stuff I read for work) and twentieth-century fiction by old favorite authors––including some genre fiction, but usually of the “crossover” mainstream-author variety (e.g., spy thrillers by John Le Carré, sci-fi and fantasy by Ursula K. Le Guin).

Do you have format preferences (print, ebook, audiobook, abridged, original language/translated, etc.)?
Almost always print. Very occasionally I’ll listen to audiobooks of classic novels via Librivox, it’s just not part of my routine––perhaps it should be! I read translated works; I just finished Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary. None of my languages outside of English are good enough to make me think I’d get more out of the original, though perhaps it would be good practice to try and tackle a novel in French or Spanish (my German is at approximately the See Spot Run level).

How do you find new books to read?
Recommendations from friends, and book reviews (particularly in the New York Times). People often get me books for holidays and birthdays, either things I’ve asked for or things they think I’d like, so I always have a big backlog of reading material! I also love wandering in libraries and bookstores, particularly as a way to stumble on nonfiction about topics of interest.

Where and when do you read? Outdoors or indoors? At home or out and about? Mornings, evenings, or just before bed?
During the day I love reading outdoors when it’s warm enough! I also read in bed before going to sleep, if I’m not too tired.

Do you use any libraries or library resources for non-required reading?
Not as much as I should! I have stumbled on a lot of interesting reading just by wandering the stacks at Alexander, but that’s more work-adjacent stuff.

What do you get out of your non-required reading?
Something engaging to pass the time, most of all! I like reading something that will make me laugh, make me think, or teach me something new. I’m also always on the hunt for books I might teach in a non-period-specific course! I figure that any reading I do is always at some level enriching my ability to talk about literature, history, culture, etc. more generally, so it’s never time wasted––but in my non-required reading I’m also looking for a spoonful of sugar with the medicine, something that makes me feel like I’m off the clock and enjoying myself. When reading becomes your job it’s important to find ways to remind yourself that it’s a passion as well, and to find ways to separate the two sometimes (even if the overlap is part of what drew you to that career in the first place).

What are you currently reading, or what have you read and enjoyed most recently?
Right now I’m in the middle of John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, a Cold War thriller; and Priya Satia’s Empire of Guns, a history book about the role of military contracting in the Industrial Revolution in Britain (so work-adjacent). I have a bad habit of being in the middle of a lot of books at the same time, dating back to childhood, and I’ve gotten worse at remembering what’s going on in each of them! The last book that really bowled me over and had me turning the pages might be Charles C. Mann’s 1491, a general-audience history book about the Americas before Columbus––very well-written, absolutely fascinating stuff you don’t tend to get in school (at least I didn’t).

Recommend a book in one sentence that you think everyone should read:
Oh gosh, I don’t know­­––Kafka’s short stories, maybe. They’re weird but they stick in your head, and they’re hard to interpret in the best possible way, like transmissions from another planet.

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