Thomas Hobbes said that if he had read as much as others he would be as ignorant as they. Today most university faculty lack Hobbes's aplomb, and everyone complains that there's simply too much to read. The flood of books, articles, and blog posts never stops. (And here's one more!) Academic norms require that scholars "engage the literature," but the potentially relevant literature is enormous, especially for those who aspire to some kind of interdisciplinary approach. And at many universities, declining budgets and increasing administrative duties threaten the little time left for reading.
To make matters worse, academic culture seems carefully designed to maximize worries that one hasn't read enough. The convention of obsequious citation ensures that everyone thinks others have read more than they have. And now some journals are trying to raise their impact factor by pressuring authors to pad their articles with superfluous references — pressure experienced by one in five academics, according to a recent study.
How many times have you heard someone publicly admit to not having read a key book in their field? Never. Perhaps you know the game "humiliation" from the David Lodge novel? If not, just nod and smile in feigned recognition, then secretly go look it up. Of course, those with more cultural and professional power may be able to afford admitting they haven't read something — "You know, believe it not, I've actually never read Hamlet" — but by breaking the norm, they reinforce both their status and the norm itself.
There are no simple fixes, but here are two basic approaches to managing the overload of "must read" publications: demarcate and associate.
The first approach separates necessary from unnecessary reading, good from bad. Some handy demarcation criteria appear in the philosopher Harry Frankfurt's charming book On Bullshit. (It was all the rage during the Bush administration, but it's still worth reading, especially since it's extremely short.) Frankfurt says that bullshit is not the same as lying. Bullshit is speech or action that reveals an utter lack of concern with truth (presumably in areas where some kind of truth matters and can be discerned through established criteria, which is more problematic than Frankfurt admits). Frankfurt thinks that mass democracies are especially prone to bullshit, because they encourage every citizen to say something about every subject. Another source of bullshit is our confessional culture of personal authenticity and sincerity, based on the mistaken assumption that it's easier to understand yourself than the world. And although Frankfurt doesn't discuss it, one of the most fecund sources of bullshit is the doctrine of publish-or-perish, which fosters concern with professional status rather than saying something true and important. Other things being equal, cutting the bullshit from your reading list probably entails avoiding publications that are so obsessed with their own narrow disciplinary concerns (we've all been there) that they never get around to addressing other people or things.
You might object that you need to read at least some of a book to know that you don't need to read more, which leads to the second approach: association. Rather than focus on separating good from bad, try to see how good, bad, and everything between fits together. Learn how in Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read. The title sounds like a guide for bullshitters, but Bayard challenges common assumptions about what it means to read a book in the first place. He notes that everyone interprets books differently, and the moment you finish reading a book you start forgetting it. What's most important about a book is not the details of its content, but its place in a cultural discourse. So a person who's recently heard about a book, maybe read a review and skimmed a few pages, could have more to say about it than a person who read it cover-to-cover a few years ago. Bayard uses a refreshingly humble citation system: UB: unknown book; SB: skimmed book; HB: heard about book; FB: forgotten book. And yes, to repeat every reviewer's joke: I actually read Bayard's book, whatever that means.
Maybe I could have skipped to the last chapter, where Bayard argues that, for the critic, books should fulfill the same function as nature for the writer or painter: "not to serve as the object of his work, but to stimulate him to write." He says that "what is essential is to speak about ourselves and not about books, or to speak about ourselves by way of books." Maybe so, in part. But then Bayard writes, "In the end, we need not fear lying about the text, but only lying about ourselves." Even for a literary critic, that sounds like the sort of narcissism that would drive Frankfurt nuts.
So, no surprises here: the answer must lie in both identifying what's worth reading and learning how it fits together with everything else. That may help one find an appropriate balance between reading and writing, between understanding the world and expressing oneself.
Enough said. Now I have some reading to do.