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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: A PhD Week, Monday

Monday, February 19, 2007

The alarm goes off at 8:00 this morning, and, it being quite light outside, I manage to get out of bed after the third snooze. Some people, citizens of the alternate universe called "RealWorld," would envy my being able to lie in this late before getting up for work. For me, though, it is often the most challenging aspect of the day. Since I am completely flexible with my time, why worry if I want to stay in bed until 8:30, 9:00, the afternoon? I can always work later into the evening, or make some confident excuse why the extra time in bed now can be worked off later in the week, month, year. Neither probed by the demands of immediate work deadlines nor, in the cold and dull days of Winter, prodded by the sun piercing even our net curtains, I often feel no impulse to get up at all.

This morning, however, perhaps on account of it being a Monday, I do manage to roll out of the duvet and into whatever warm clothes happen to be lying on the floor. I eat breakfast whilst listening to a Naughtie rant and a Humphries hump on the Today programme and, there being few stories of interest, and Start the Week that follows having no topics of literary interest, I open my first book by 8:30, and start to read.

This time, it's Marina Warner's Phantasmagoria, a glorious miscellany of ghosts and spirit encounters in art, literature and life, from the Renaissance to the cybernetic age. She has a wonderfully encyclopaedic range, though sometimes reading her I feel as her father must have felt as, taking her around museums as a kid, as I am sure she would have tugged him insistently in many directions, running through the galleries trailing demands and questions. The first hour is almost always my best for concentration and reading (the writing hour, if it comes at all, will kick in at some unpredictably late hour of the day), and I get to 10:00 without a break.

I spend the next hour getting myself up-to-date online: I scan BBC News for the stories and sport that didn't make it onto Today, check the stats for this website (75 hits the whole of yesterday, Sunday, and the same number by 10:00 today), use Google Reader for feeds from my favourite books and literary blogs, as well as photoblogs, and check emails. I also start this post - as well as all its other benefits, blogging is my equivalent of an athelete's warm up, a way of getting into a writing frame of mind. As I start to waste time online, and I realise that I really am did not need to know that Britney Spears has shaved (or pulled out?) all her hair, I go back downstairs and continue to read.

I get close to the end of the book, before it's time for lunch. Often over recent weeks I have taken to working in the library or in one of our Postgraduate study rooms. Maybe it's simply because it's too cold to think in our house, or (more likely) it's the absence of other distractions and the presence of numerous hunched heads working hard, but I have found the change quite conducive to writing. Today, however, checking the bread bin in the morning, I discover only half a stale loaf, suitable for toast but unsuitable for lunch box sandwiches. Thus I decided to work at home until after lunch today. It reveals something about life as a PhD student that deciding whether to work in the "office" or at home comes down to something as simple as the quality of your bread.

In the afternoon, however, I go back to the computer; intending just to check my emails before heading to the library, I suddenly become inspired. I am trying to produce a A1 size poster outlining my research; I've been at it on-and-off since before Christmas, but somehow the deadline (this coming Thursday) has crept up on me. By the time I turn from my text boxes and pictures (does carefully dragging a text box half an inch to the left, then an hour later carefully dragging it back again count as "work"?) and look at the clock, I realise it's late into the afternoon. This period is when PhD work becomes an absolute pleasure rather than a chore; utterly absorbed in my research interests, time really does fly as I have fun whilst being thoroughly productive. I an perverse way, I often feel more tired having done an hour's plodding reading, or staring at a screen searching for inspiration on a blank page, than doing an entire afternoon in full flow.

I go back to Phantasmagoria, and finish it off, before heading into town. There is an evening lecture series on Darwin I have been attending; seriously high quality speakers, it has been often accessible but sometimes baffling. Today's falls into the latter category - an argument for a three-dimensional, topographical approach to descent and ancestry that I don't quite follow. Nevertheless, I have done another hour-and-a-half of "work" with the minimum possible effort on my part; it being late in the evening, I feel I have built up time in lieu to take off later in the week, when I'm bored of working and the next level on Project Gotham Racing 2 really does need to be completed.

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