Category Archives: Reading–Social Benefits

Tchotchkes R’US: Formerly known as Barnes and Nobles, Booksellers

Like a beaten dog wagging its tail as it returns to the master for one more slap, I keep returning to Barnes and Nobles, hoping for a dry bone or at least a condescending pat on the head. Mostly getting the slap.  I’m wondering lately how much longer B&N can hold on to the subtitle of their name with a straight face. I admit that for purists Barnes and Nobles was never much of a bookseller in the first place, the corporate ambiance just a bit too antiseptic for the crowd that prefers their books straight, preferably with the slightest scent of dust and mold. But as a person that has spent the entirety of his life in flyover country, Barnes and Nobles and its recently deceased cousin Borders seemed something like salvation. If the ambiance was corporate, the books were real, and they were many. If there were too few from independent publishers, there were more than enough good books to last any reader a lifetime, and I spent many hours on my own wandering the shelves, feeling that ache that all readers know, the realization that there are too many good books and one lifetime will never be enough.

Barnes and Nobles became a family affair for us. One way I induced the habit of reading in my kids was to promise them I’d take them to B&N anytime they finished a book and buy them another one. The ploy paid off. My kids read voraciously, son and daughter alike, putting the lie to the notion that kids today have to choose between reading and surfing.  My kids do both just fine, and I think this is attributable in no small part to the fact our family time together was spent wandering the endless aisles of bookstores, imaging the endless possibilities, what the world would be like if we only had enough time to read them all. Other families go on kayak trips; we read books. I’m not sorry for the tradeoffs.

All that is mostly over, for paper books anyway. My son and I still go over to Barnes and Nobles, but the last three trips we’ve come out saying the same thing to one another without prompting–worthless. Aisle after Aisle of bookshelves in our local store are being replaced by toys and tchotchkes designed to…..do what? It’s not even clear. At least when the place was dominated by books it was clear that this was where you went for books. Now it seems like a vaguely upscale Walmart with a vast toy section. I’m waiting for the clothing section to open up soon.

I don’t think we should underestimate the consequence of these changes for booksellers and bookreaders. Although it is the case that readers will still be able to get books via your local Amazon.com, the place of books is changing in radical ways.  The advent of e-books is completely reordering the business of bookselling–and i would say the culture of books as well.  An article in the Economist notes that books are following in the sucking vortex that has swallowed the music and newspaper industries all but whole.  Among the biggest casualties is the books and mortar bookstore, and this is of no small consequence to the effort to sell books in general:

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is the gradual disappearance of the shop window. Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, points out that a film may be released with more than $100m of marketing behind it. Music singles often receive radio promotion. Publishers, on the other hand, rely heavily on bookstores to bring new releases to customers’ attention and to steer them to books that they might not have considered buying. As stores close, the industry loses much more than a retail outlet. Publishers are increasingly trying to push books through online social networks. But Mr Murray says he hasn’t seen anything that replicates the experience of browsing a bookstore.

Confession, I actually enjoy browsing Amazon, and I read book reviews endlessly.  But I think this article is right that there is nothing quite like the experience of browsing the shelves at a bookstore, in part because it is a kind of communal event.  It is not that there are more choices–there aren’t, there are far more choices online.  Nor is it necessarily that things are better organized.  I think I have a better chance of finding things relevant to my interests through a search engine than I do by a chance encounter in the stack.   And, indeed, The Strand is a book store that leaves me vaguely nauseous and dizzy, both because there is too much choice and there is too little organization.  But the physical fact of browsing with one’s companions through the stacks, the chance encounter with a book you had heard about but never seen, the excitement of discovery, the anxious calculations–at least if you are an impoverished graduate student or new parent–as to whether you have enough cash on hand to make the purchase now or take a chance that the book will disappear if you wait.  All of these get left behind in the sterility of the online exchange.  The bookstore is finally a cultural location, a location of culture, where bookminded people go for buzz they get from being around other book-minded people.  I can get my books from Amazon, and I actually don’t mind getting them via e-books, avoiding all the fuss of going down and having a face to face transaction with a seller.  But that face to face is part of the point, it seems to me.  Even though book-buying has always fundamentally been about an exchange of cash for commodity, the failure to see that it was also more than that is the cultural poverty of a world that amazon creates.  With books stores dying a rapid death and libraries close upon their heels, I’m feeling a little like a man without a country, since the country of books is the one to which I’ve always been most loyal.

I am, of course, sounding old and crotchety.  The same article in the Economist notes that IKEA is now changing their bookshelf line in the anticipation that people will no longer use them for books.

TO SEE how profoundly the book business is changing, watch the shelves. Next month IKEA will introduce a new, deeper version of its ubiquitous “BILLY” bookcase. The flat-pack furniture giant is already promoting glass doors for its bookshelves. The firm reckons customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome—anything, that is, except books that are actually read.

I suspect this may be true.  Bookshelves and books alike may become craft items, things produced by those curious folks who do things by hand, items that you can only buy at craft fairs and auctions, something you can’t find at Wal-Mart, or Barnes and Nobles.

Stop the hype! Inflationary reading crisis calls for interest cut

One of the features of our current reading crisis is that no one can agree if it even exists.
Jennifer Shuessler at the Nytimes points
with a notable degree of exhaustion at the fact that everyone and their mother seems to be talking about a crisis in reading. The tendency is, I suppose, to be jaded and assume that there is no crisis whatsoever, that it is all hype. A problem in a culture of hype is that when there really is something to pay attention to, we can’t distinguish between the reality and hype. Because we know there is hype, and can’t be sure there’s reality, we tend to think that every new publicized concern is more an issue of publicity than concern.

Shuessler points to Ursula LeGuin’s essay in Harpers, where she makes the case that serious readers have never been more than a minority anyway, so why worry.

“Self-satisfaction with the inability to remain conscious when faced with printed matter seems questionable. But I also want to question the assumption—whether gloomy or faintly gloating—that books are on the way out. I think they’re here to stay. It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?”

This strikes me as an instance of jaded cynicism rather than ethical or cultural seriousness unless one views the reading of books as, already, a cultural option of little personal or social consequence. What, Le Guin would also say, then, that it makes no difference that millions of people have a literacy level that can, at best, consume comic books? So they can’t read Toni Morrison? Who cares? Well, I guess this is a position.

More seriously, Shuessler points to Caleb Crain’s blog that points out the many and diverse statements of readerly crisis that have been ongoing throughout the 20th century. Indeed, as I’ve suggested on this blog before, it’s possible to argue that imagining reading in crisis is a condition of reading in Western culture. How those crises are imagined may say a great deal more about the culture than they say about reading, but it is interesting nonetheless. In earlier centuries people worried that too many people were reading, then we believed that the wrong people were reading, then we worried that people read the wrong books. In the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, sociologists worried that people read too much, especially men. Since then, we’ve worried that people weren’t reading enough, a crisis that continues apace with renewed vigor in our own era.

I picked up the following titles from quick survey of article titles in the Saturday Review of Literature from mid-century. With a few adjustments, we could imagine them all coming out of interpretations of the latest NEA study.

“Why is it so difficult to interest reading public in good books?” (December 1 1934) p. 324

(Of course, now we are mostly worried about getting them interested in reading books at all. Even Rush Limbaugh. Bill O’Reilly? Please? Anything to ease my mind.)

“Bookless mind.” (November 10 1934) p. 272

(This is absolutely my favorite)

“Influence of books on people who do not read.” (July 24 1937) p. 13.

(I’m assuming this works something like radiation. Rub up next to me and let my literacy rub right off on you.)

“Can college graduates read?” (July 16 1938) p. 3-4+

(The resounding answer in 2007 tends to be no.)

“What a capitalist reads [one man’s literary meat].” (December 4 1943) p. 12-15

(No, I think this is my absolute favorite. I wonder, what is one man’s literary poultry? fruits and vegetables? A new Borgesian system of book classification is in the offing)

“Only half of us read books.”(August 5 1950) p. 22

(So many???)

“How to get time to read a book.”(September 29 1951) p. 5

(And this was before the internet, ipods, and tivo. It truly is miraculous we read at all if they worried about this in an era with three tv channels in black and white)

“Don’t Americans read or write?

. “(July 14 1951) p. 24-5.

(No, maybe this is, after all, my truly absolute favorite. Did Americans in 1951 really care what people in Lahore, Pakistan thought about us . This was before the bomb and Osama bin Laden, after all.)

As with hype, the recognition that reading has always been in crisis mode tempts us to think there is no crisis to worry about. Perhaps so. I’m more intrigued by why it is that reading must always be an occasion for crisis. Why have cultures always been so determined that reading is fenced in with all the right cultural taboos or mandates: done in just the right amounts, done by just the right people or by all the people, done with just the right books, carried forward in just the right ways—whether through academic classrooms or community enhancing book clubs.

One tentative hypothesis works better for theories worrying about social control. Reading’s essential isolation means that it must always remain an issue of concern and crisis for human sociality. I say essential isolation, because reading is always an act of the individual mind decoding for oneself. Even when one is reading aloud to others, listeners must affirm an act of faith that what is being read is what is on the page—easier in our age. Not so easy in antiquity where, for instance, in ancient Israel some towns were lucky to have even one person read. Reading’s essential isolation calls in to question or puts our necessary human sociality in to question.

Still, this works better for those eras that worried that the wrong people were reading, or that people were reading too much, or that people were reading the wrong things. Maybe we are in the ironic position in our own era of having become comfortable with the ways we’ve negotiated what was formerly a form of textual chaos. The book has been more or less tamed? The new chaos, the new threat, is the uncontrolled proliferation of text on the internet?

I’m not sure I go with this. A thought experiment. I still think books are less tame than they are sometimes assumed to be by digital utopians. I have yet to be changed by a web page in the ways that I have been changed by dozens of experiences with books that I can point to.

Books are old, but they don’t seem tame. Not yet. Not to me.

Photosynth and the Feebleness of Books

One of my very good students, Colin Chrestay, sent me the attached video of a techie at Microsoft showing off this staggering new software–software seems like too mild a word–in development called Photosynth. If you’re only interested in books, you can watch the first two minutes, but watch the whole thing. You really must watch the whole thing.

Stuff like this is just really staggering to me in seeing what is now possible via the web. (My guess is this is old hat to a great many people; but not to me). I don’t know enough about the specifics, and assume that this kind of thing is still a ways away from every person’s fingertips. But the realization that it isn’t inconceivable that every school child could explore every corner of the earth in three dimensions, from every angle and in the minutest detail to the broadest geographic and geological context…well, when I was my son’s age these were the fantasies of Ray Bradbury. I imagine it will be the normal day to day life of my grandchildren.

Re. books, the feebleness of books. Well, I guess I don’t completely think that books are feeble, but this kind of thing just makes clear to me again that there are many things for which the electronic world is clearly superior to anything that book culture could imagine. To insist otherwise does, I think, verge on a snobbish version of luddite-ism.

For instance, when I was growing up on books, a selling point for reading was that books allowed you to experience multiple places and cultures in the world, to travel to places in your imagination that you could never access with your body. And I don’t think there was anything spurious in that claim. But how this raison d’etre pales in comparison to seeing these worlds in three dimensions. Imagine that you wanted to know about mountain climbing in the Himilayas. I am sure there is still a very big place for books on this subject, but how much more impoverished that experience would be for the students who won’t have access to the kind of experience that photosynth can provide.

As a result, it seems to me that we need to think clearly about just what it is that books give us access to in terms of form or content that can’t be accessed in the same way via these kinds of technology. Among other things, of course, we might say that books are a good source for exploring the possibilities of language. And one traditional distinction between novels and movies seems to me to still hold for the visuality of the internet. Books, texts in language, are better media for exploring the intricacies of the human pscyhe, better access to the interior world than the visual world of technology typically allows for. Perhaps we need both novels and autobiographies by mountain climbers, and photosynth representations of mountain climbing, to get our strongest human approximation of what it must be like to climb in the Himalayas.

Secondly, of course, I’m intrigued by the degree in this video that books and newspapers are a passing mention. Indeed, the brief nod to Dickens’ Bleak House seems to be mostly about the fact that we could put the whole of Bleak House into a simultaneous view, something the presenter agrees is not necessarily a great way to read a book. And the bit on newspapers seems to be about trying to make the experience of reading a traditional newspaper more available for the digital reader. One wants to say why. It’s neat that we can do this, but peculiarity of these moments in the video suggest to me the ways in which these technologies create different forms of experience that are not compatible with books or newspapers as traditionally conceived.

I admit that when I see videos like this, I mostly think that the digital utopians have won the day. That I should fold my tents and go home.

Nevertheless, it still seems to me that the task is to figure out what the precise role of reading traditional texts really is; what particular role do traditional forms of reading and writing have to play in our present moment. What can the reading of texts provide, what skills can it enable, that are difficult (impossible?) to develop in any other way. Of course, we can continue to read without worrying about these things, simply because we like reading books more than other things, but my guess is that this will mean that reading books will become an increasingly arcane hobby–something a little like collecting rare books or writing on typewriters is today. Something that is done and enjoyed, something for which there is even a minimal market, but something that is mostly a curiosity rather than a serious cultural enterprise.

In Praise of Shyness, Solitude, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (And All Other Personality Disorders Associated with Reading): Or, What’s Wrong With Being Disconnected?

A review posted on spiked-online.com, “Humanity, Though Art Sick,” discusses Christopher Lane’s new book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness. Among other things it appears that Lane discusses the exponential pathologization of the human race at the hands of the American Psychiatric Association, with particular emphasis on the way shyness or a tendency toward introversion has gradually come to be seen as a deviation from human normality.

A couple of excerpts from Helene Guldberg’s review:

‘In my mother’s generation, shy people were seen as introverted and perhaps a bit awkward, but never mentally ill.’

So writes the Chicago-based research professor, Christopher Lane, in his fascinating new book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness. ‘Adults admired their bashfulness, associated it with bookishness, reserve, and a yen for solitude. But shyness isn’t just shyness any more. It is a disease. It has a variety of over-wrought names, including “social anxiety” and “avoidant personality disorder”, afflictions said to trouble millions’, Lane continues.….

Lane writes: ‘Beginning in 1980, with much fanfare and confidence in its revised diagnoses, the American Psychiatric Association added “social phobia”, “avoidant personality disorder”, and several similar conditions to the third edition of its massively expanded Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In this 500-page volume… the introverted individual morphed into the mildly psychotic person whose symptoms included being aloof, being dull, and simply “being alone”.’ Shyness now allegedly almost rivals depression in magnitude, a ‘sickness’ for which ‘almost 200million prescriptions are filled every year’ in the USA. Apparently, social phobia – shyness – ‘has become a pandemic’, says Lane….

The sad consequence of this state of affairs is that the range of ‘healthy behaviour’ is being increasingly narrowed. ‘Our quirks and eccentricities – the normal emotional range of adolescence and adulthood – have become problems we fear and expect drugs to fix’, Lane writes. ‘We are no longer citizens justifiably concerned about our world, who sometimes need to be alone. Our affiliations are chronic anxiety, personality or mood disorders; our solitude is a marker for mild psychosis; our dissent, a symptom of Oppositional Defiant Disorder; our worries, chemical imbalance that drugs must cure.’

In general this book—at least based on the review—seems simpatico with the recent essay by Eric Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher education (Yes, the essay that I generally dissed in an earlier post, but which I still think was topically interesting. According to Wilson:

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy. The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field, positive psychology, devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy. Doctors offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.

Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment?

I’m not sure that this amounts to a backlash, but anecdotally it does seem to me that there’s been a little more questioning of the notion that we ought to get rid of every hiccup in our emotional well-being. Recently a mother of one of my children’s friends told me they had taken their child off mood-altering medication. The child has responded with new confidence in class and by growing two inches in two months. Re. moods….Maybe there’s something OK about feeling that there’s something askew in a world where men and women are coming home maimed from a foreign war in which they’ve done far more maiming of women and children than our own country would ever politically endure in its wildest dreams or nightmares. Maybe it’s Ok for a teenager to feel that they don’t fit in so well with the in crowd. I think we think every such teenager is on the brink of Columbine. Maybe feeling a little disconnected will lead them to … read books. Hey, maybe it’s Ok to not feel wonderful, and maybe, just maybe it’s Ok to not want to join in with the gang all the time. Gangs, after all, are called gangs for good reason.

For my own purposes, I’m intrigued by the degree to which behaviours often associated with reading fall along the lines of…well…currently defined personality disorders. I mean, read the history of readers from Jean Toomer to Richard Rodriguez to Anna Quindlen. (To Pete Powers, if I had an autobiography out there that anyone would read). We are not, for the most part, the types who are great joiners. I mean, Joyce Carol Oates is one of my heroes. A person who spends her life alone in a room, apparently, about 14 hours a day, doing little more than disgorging words in to a computer.

Indeed, I remember as a college student reading an essay wherein Walker Percy says something like there’s nothing more alienating for a sad and lonely person than reading a book about happy people while sitting on a bus full of happy people. (Actually, I think there is something more alienating in my experience; attending a party full of happy people and not having anything at all on hand to read, not even a book about happy people). By contrast, the happiest thing in the world for such a person is to read a story about a sad and lonely person while sitting sad and lonely on a bus.

Percy didn’t make me want to go out and join a book group. He did make me smile and ask “How did he know?” I didn’t have to be with Walker Percy and share a hot toddy to know I was not alone, less alone than I often feel at parties with people sharing hot toddies. (Which, as I think of it, I never am since hot toddies are from Louisiana and I don’t think they know how to make them in Pennsylvania.)

This leap is full of logical fallacies, but it seems to me no accident that the apparent decline in reading of fiction and of levels of reading comprehension has accompanied the pathologization of solitude in American culture. It hasn’t just been the American Psychiatric Association. It’s been in business with business models that emphasize working groups rather than individual initiative. It’s been in religion and it’s been in the discussion of family values.

(Let me say that although I am a Democrat I nearly became nauseated when Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards proclaimed in their last debate “We’re all family.” Good Grief. It’s enough to make one think again about John McCain. Anything to escape the cloying grip of politics family style. We aren’t a village or a family. We are a big beast of a country, largely run by a military-industrial complex intricately intertwined with a system of global finance and corporate capitalism that even leading economists admit that they can’t fully comprehend. I would like to believe that our politicians realize we don’t want the country run by our Aunt Joe or Uncle Sue. No accident that John McCain spent five years alone in a brutal cell. He learned something all the joiners may never figure out).

Above all things, of course, the ideology of the internet–with its relentless drumbeat of connection, connection, connection–teaches us that lonerdom is peculiar and worthy of suspicion . Ever faster, ever more omnipresent, ever more inescapable. The compulsion to “friend”–the ubiquitous and sad new verb of our era–utter strangers. Even those that critique the internet as not really connecting us at all—as Lee Siegel apparently does in in his newest book on internet culture—even these critics exalt the ideal of connectedness above all else. Internet connection is bad, not because connection is worthy of thought or criticism, but because the internet purportedly does not provide true and authentic connection and community. Everyone and their mother exalts community and connectedness. What new pill or what technology or what community reading program will get us there? Whereas dictatorships control readers and writers by shooting them, we control them by pathologizing the behaviours that might lead…horrors…to hours spent alone doing God knows what.

Indeed, why read anymore at all to confirm the importance of your own solitude and sadness. Take a pill, you’ll feel better in the morning. Or join a book group.

At moments like this I feel like becoming a back-to-the-lander.

Let it be said, maybe we are too connected. Maybe we need more solitude. Maybe we need more silence without the relentless need to hear (or see on screen) the clattering voices of someone else, as if we are too afraid to listen to the clattering voices in our own imagination.

In this spirit, I have to confess that I am less than thrilled with the advent of bookglutton.com (though, in the spirit of America the connected, I’m planning on joining up), which I discovered on a blog at teleread.org this morning. At Bookglutton, you read books collectively online with others, viewing their comments on every page as you go along. Every book a blog. No longer the absorbed attention that borders on the mystical that we experience in traditional intensive reading, caught up in the alternative world created by another’s imagination. Instead, now, even reading books will be like attending movies where one-third of the audience converses on cell phones, another third texts friends on the opposite side of the theater, and the final third feels compelled to engage everyone around them with their commentary–as if they were afraid they might be sitting alone in the dark.

Am I alone in thinking that there is something pathological about this need to connect? Is it possible that a people who has lost the capacity for contented solitude, or even discontented solitude, who has not learned to embrace its own loneliness, is it possible that such a people is maybe just a little bit sick?

Now that you have finished reading my blog, write me a comment. Please. I am feeling disconnected. And lonely. And Sad.

I think I’ll take a pill. Or find someone to friend.

Fish Redux

A response of mine to Fish’s latest arguments about the Humanities was posted today in the comments section of the Times at Fish’s blog. I think I’m going to write my parents and tell them I’ve now been published in the New York Times! However, they think it’s a liberal rag. I doubt they will mention it to their friends at church. (Side note:  What exactly is a liberal rag in digital world–liberal pixels?  liberal electrons?  Maybe an e-rag.  I like it.)
My comment ran as follows:

I wonder whether the refutation of Dr. Fish’s position lies within the framework of his own argument, at least insofar as English studies is concerned. He begins with a marvelous disquisition on the way language works and means–or does not mean what we think it means–in Herbert’s poem. He ends by saying “I can remember countless times when I’ve read a poem (like Herbert’s ‘Matins’) and said ‘Wow!’ or ‘Isn’t that just great?’”

The rhetorical shape of his argument–to say nothing of its length–makes us conflate these two moments, and we find ourselves agreeing with him when he says, “I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment.”

However, these are two very different moments of response, two very different pleasures, we might say. In the final instance, who, after all, would pay for us to say to one another “Gee whiz, isn’t literature grand.” The first instance, however, is an exemplary instance of close reading learned through a substantial amount of reading,training, and practice (in both reading and writing). Fish’s close reading points to the particular role that literary studies can play–though it often fails to play–in understanding the nature, history and possibilities of written language.

If I am right about this, a rationale for this kind of study lies not in Fish’s aesthetic wonderment, but in rhetoric and philology. Surely the way written language works in the world deserves the kind of careful scrutiny we give to bacteria and to economics. We don’t need to think of the utility of this kind of study in immediate terms. The study of pure science or mathematics, for instance, proceeds without any clear sense of it’s immediate utility, and students are required to study chemistry even when the day to day practice of their lives rarely requires it’s application.

Similary, we might say the careful study of how written language works need not be justified by it’s immediate application, but by a general sense that it is better to have human beings in the modern world educated in the ways language has functioned and can function and may function. A related gesture would be to return to a recognition that the study of literature can exist in part to create better writers–something that most English departments these days choose to see as beneath the seriousness of their enterprise. However, undergraduates that have understood the textual dimensions of complex, dense, and difficult texts may be in a better position to apply that understanding to their own writing in the future.

This might be a pleasure worth paying for.

Stanley Fish Pleasures Himself, Yet Again

Fish returned again today to his continued probing of the rationale for the humanities, concluding—surprise!—there is no such rationale, at least not one that anyone will bother to pay for. Fish’s arguments change, somewhat, this time around but he’s mostly sticking to familiar territory, unconvinced by the hundreds of readers who mustered the energy to respond before the Times cut off the opportunity to comment.

Fish begins with an interesting and powerful disquisition on the nature of humanistic investigations.

“In a poem titled ‘Matins,’ the 17th century Anglican poet George Herbert says to God, If you will ‘teach me thy love to know . . . Then by a sunbeam I will climb to thee.’ But the dynamics of the proffered bargain – if you do X, I’ll do Y – are undercut by the line that proposes it, and especially by the double pun in ‘sunbeam.’

“‘Sun’ is a standard pun on Son; it refers to Jesus Christ; ‘beam’ means not only ray of light, but a piece of wood large enough to support a structure; it refers to the cross on which a crucified Christ by dying takes upon himself and redeems (pays the price for) the sins of those who believe in him. So while ‘by a sunbeam’ seems to specify the means by which the poem’s speaker will perform a certain act – ‘I will climb to thee’ – the phrase undercut his claim to be able to do so by reminding us (not him) that Christ has already done the climbing and thereby prevented (in the sense of anticipating) any positive act man mistakenly thinks to be his own. If the speaker climbs to God, he does so by means of God, and cannot take any personal credit for what he ‘does.’ If he truly knows God’s love, he will know that as an unconditional and all-sufficing gift it has disabled him as an agent.

“This brief analysis of a line of poetry that simultaneously reports a resolution and undermines it is an example of the kind of work and teaching I have done for almost five decades. It is the work of a humanist, that is, someone employed in a college to teach literary, philosophical and historical texts. The questions raised in my previous column and in the responses to it are: what is the value of such work, why should anyone fund it, and why (for what reasons) does anyone do it?”

This is Fish the quintessential close reader, to my mind demonstrating once again that whatever the peregrinations he and we may have made through high theory, our debt as a discipline to the New Critics remains in some sense unexceedable. What we do, he rightly says, what we always return to, what we inevitably affirm whatever our allegiances to history or whatever our convictions about the possibility and impossibility of meaning, is this activity, the simple and yet difficult act of attending, of reading what the flow of language tempts us always to miss.
For Fish, again, this is its own pleasure and its own rationale. It serves no larger purpose. And, as he now comes out frankly in his final paragraphs and asserts, it’s not clear that there is any justification in being paid for it.

“One final point. Nguyen Chau Giao asks, ‘Dr. Fish, when was the last time you read a poem . . . that so moved you to take certain actions to improve your lot or others?’ To tell the truth, I can’t remember a single time. But I can remember countless times when I’ve read a poem (like Herbert’s “Matins”) and said ‘Wow!’ or ‘Isn’t that just great?’ That’s more than enough in my view to justify the enterprise of humanistic study, but I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment.”

To some degree I’ve already argued with Fish’s position here in my post last Thursday. However, I want to point out today that there’s a very long distance between his opening disquisition and his late affirmation of aesthetic wonderment. In between, Fish again makes the case that the study of literature does absolutely nothing in the world. However, I think his own example may suggest otherwise.

Fish continues to imagine the bases of the discipline in the triumph of literature, he is stuck in noting the division between the production—and perhaps usefulness—of great art and the uselessness of studying it. However although this self-substantive view of literature has been at the center of English studies for the past century, it seems to me that we need not be captive to this particular image of what it is we do and why.

Fish the rhetorician surely knows that an older rationale for study of literature is that it teaches us about how language works and how it can be used. Literature is not an icon that exists apart from the world in a separate sphere; Literature subsists in language, and by studying literature seriously we come to understand better how language works in the world, no small thing to accomplish. Indeed, the skill that Fish ably demonstrates in his opening is not a natural but a learned skill, one that requires substantial practice and study.

I have suggested with some colleagues for some time now that English studies needs to return to or reemphasize it’s roots in rhetoric and philology. The study of literature is only one, but one very good way to study how language has worked in the past and what its possibilities might be for the future. As a corollary, writing studies needs to be rescued from it’s marginal status in most English departments. Unless one believes that imitation is useless, the study of how works of literature achieve their effects in the present—or how they achieved similar or different effects in the past—can be a doorway in to understanding how the written word can function effectively in the present.

I realize this only applies to English studies; the rest of the humanities will have to fend for themselves. However would my suggestions satisfy Fish even as to the study of literature. I doubt it. But that’s because he has narrowly defined his pleasures over and against utility. Perhaps Fish has studied a bit too much of the Milton the Puritan. It is, perhaps, one of the great blessings of literary study, that pleasure and utility can be achieved in the same fertile moment, rather than existing in futile opposition.

Passion, Politics, and English Studies; Or, What Hillary’s Tears Can Teach English Departments.

The New York Times today gives a serious turn to all the random speculation that Hillary’s tears—or more precisely, near tears—may have played a role in her victory in New Hampshire.

“Short, emotionally charged narratives — story fragments, of a certain kind — can travel through a population faster than any virus and alter behavior on a dime, they say. Under certain conditions, this behavior is especially infectious, research suggests, and anyone eager to play Monday morning quarterback on the New Hampshire vote should take them into account.

“’Any story that is short and powerful and throws into relief exactly the sort of issues people are thinking about at the moment they’re making a decision can have enormous impact,’ said Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine who analyzed the effect of personal stories on the civil rights movement in her book It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics.

“Mrs. Clinton’s emotional reaction to a question about how she was holding up under the pressure was not only genuine, many voters apparently decided, but it formed a powerful response to an incident during the most recent debate, when her rival John Edwards sided with Mr. Obama in a pointed exchange to one of her questions. A mininarrative was born.”

The story goes on to show statistically that more undecided women voters lurched toward Hillary in the immediate aftermath of the debate. I hate to say “I told you so,” but in the aftermath I said that I thought the tears would give an immediate 5% bump to Hillary’s poll numbers, this despite seeing all the discussion among women and having a couple of personal conversations with others who were appalled and felt that Hillary had shown an unacceptable weakness that “put women back.”

You don’t need to have a degree in social pscyhology to understand this. You just need to have an elementary grasp of gender narratives in Western culture, and perhaps to pay attention to your immediate emotional instincts before worrying about what people might think if they knew you were feeling. I felt the pull of those tears. (And I’m not even a woman. Imagine.) Leaning toward Obama, and still leaning I must say, I felt that moment pull me back, and to some degree still pulling me back at least to the degree that I’m still willing to listen to what Hillary has to say.

I still think there’s a double standard in play here, and not the one typically assigned to political divisions between men and women. The sympathy vote for Hillary goes to her because, apparently, people thought Edwards and Obama were ganging up on her. I want to say, “Oh, Boo Hoo.” Edwards’s decision to gang up on Clinton was a political calculation that she had all the money, she had a lot of the establishment power, and if he were to have a chance she would have to go. In other words he treated her like he would treat any other man in the race. But many, mostly women, read it as two men ganging up unfairly on a woman. No doubt this could have been in play. But Republicans were ganging up on Romney because he had all the money, a lot of the establishment power, and he seemed vulnerable and open to attack because of the Mormon factor (a calculation for Huckabee at least) and the flip-flop factor (a calculation for everyone). Now if, as he sat down for coffee with potential voters, Mitt had let his voice quaver the next day about how difficult it all was, do we imagine he would be getting a sympathy vote. Somehow I doubt it, but not from women, and certainly not from men. Perhaps from Mormons and those with money. Or those given to changing their minds.

The reaction provoked by Hillary’s tears spoke to very deep gender stereotypes. I just got done performing the role of Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata. At one point late in the opera Alfredo publicly berates and shames the diva Violetta—basically calling her a wanton whore (important difference from the cultured courtesan she actually is). In our staging, during this moment Violetta breaks down in tears. All the men and all the women rush or lean in the direction of Violetta even as they shout Alfredo down.

[Hey, isn’t this a fabulous rendition of me singing one of the most difficult pieces in the repetoire (heh, heh).]

Anyway, it seems to me that something similar happened with at least some significant percentage of the undecided vote in New Hampshire. The combination of Obama and Edwards tag teaming and Hillary’s next day tears provoked a rush of female sisterhood and, probably to some degree, male instinct to protect the endangered female. I don’t know if it was planned or not, but the masterstroke of the Clinton campaign was to turn a feminine stereotype in to a political strength.

Still, all that aside, I am actually really interested in the important role of emotion in this election, and in our lives generally. I actually think it was fine that Clinton teared up, and that Obama gets the citizenry’s adrenaline flowing, if not their hormones. In dismissing Barack as a kid who is purveying fairy tales Bill Clinton misses—and bizarrely so, given his history as a politician—that human beings don’t live by reason alone, or by bread.  (Besides outraging the black community–read the blogs, Hillary, the black community doesn’t need Barack to fan anything in to flames)

It’s not just the economy stupid. It’s not just the most rational man or woman for the job. [If this were so, surely Gore would have won in a runaway, the rationalist in me says]. Human beings need to be inspired, they need to be moved, they need to transcend the instrumentalism that dominates their lives day to day and see that such day-to-dayness can be connected to something bigger than themselves. Obama does this seemingly by breathing. Hillary’s tears connected undecided women to some sense of transcendent sisterhood—and, of course, it helped tremendously that the Clinton folks had superior organization in the end.

[Insert huge unjustified conceptual leap of associational logic here]

Ok, well, what does this have to do with English studies? Probably absolutely nothing, I guess. But I’ve been reading a lot lately about the crisis in the discipline, the decline of English majors, the lost sense of purpose, etcetera ad nauseum. There are various things going on here, multiple forms of causation and so forth. Still, I sense a very big disconnect between the normative passions of the profession and the passions and desires of the electorate…er, rather, student body and prospective student body.

Indeed, the idea of talking about the passions of the profession seems to be almost an oxymoron. Isn’t passion the opposite of professionalism? I remember a meeting early in my graduate career at Duke where Stanley Fish said something on the order of “If you think you are pursuing a graduate degree in English because you love literature, you are in the wrong profession.” Well, there is a certain sense in which, as with so many things, Fish is precisely right in this formulation—but perhaps disastrously so.

The professionalism of the discipline functions at odds with the very things that brought people to the discipline in the first place. The profession, seeking the dignity of professionalism and the seriousness accorded academic subjects, necessarily negates the passions associated with literature. Think, for instance, of how readily we talk about having a passion for teaching, and how rare it would be to hear someone at the MLA conference talk about their passion for literature. Good reason for this. We in the academy generally think teaching is for amateurs, and thus something that you can love and be passionate about. Besides the fact that it wins you points with search committees–at least at some schools–whereas being passionate about literature gains you nothing. (“You’re Passionate about literature??? That’s sooo 1950s.”)

Students, however, and prospective students especially in this context, consider our majors not because it will make them better lawyers or middle-level managers, or because they want to be sophisticated cultural critics. In 7 years of running sessions for prospective students I regularly ask them why they are there, why they are even bothering to think about studying literature. In 7 years I have never had a student say even once that they are going to study literature because they want to be a literary critic or literary theorist, I have never once had a student say they are going to study literature because they want to have a dispassionate and philosophical grasp of the semiotic status of nose hair in Jane Austen, and I have never once had a student say they are going to study literature because they hope to study the conflicts in interpretation represented by contemporary cultural theory. Never once. Imagine.

They all say they want to study literature because they love it. Asked why they love it they say because it changed some part of their lives, because it helped them understand others, because it helped them understand themselves, and on and on. All the reasons that we, in our dispassionate dismissing of youthful idealism, have learned to sneer at secretly in our faculty lounges. By some miraculous and unimaginable twist of fate, such 17 and 18 years old had learned to read and get something out of literature and to somehow think it would make a difference to the world if they read more of it. Young people want to be inspired and to be moved, and at our peril I think we’ve dismissed that desire as beneath importance in our quest for professional status.

A couple of examples. As an undergraduate I was a history major and bored to tears by my history profs. Then I had Joe McClatchey, an unknown to almost anyone who didn’t have him as a student or who didn’t work with him at Wheaton College, but the person to whom I dedicated my first book.

Out of Western World Lit I, I remember almost nothing about the books we read (more at some later date on Pierre Bayard’s take on whether books we’ve forgotten can actually be counted as having been read). What I do remember is the day Joe McClatchey showed slides of various satyrs and other vaguely evil beings from Roman mythology. He suddenly shuddered visibly, turned away from the screen, and whispered “Unnatural!” He wasn’t acting. Now, all this is laughable to sophisticates in the current academy. But I was profoundly moved that there was something important to care about in books.

Another day McClatchey was reading Milton describing the fall of Adam in Paradise Lost. In the middle of the passage, Joe McClatchey teared up like Hillary Clinton and said, “I can’t go on.” He closed his book and leaving papers and books behind, fled the room. Again, incredulous laughter from the contemporary sophisticate, but we were all in awe. What it said to me as an undergraduate was, “Wow, there’s something more important going on here than getting a grade, and something more important than taking a class so I can get in to law school.”

Assess that, o ye provosts of the world.

At this stage of the game, of course, we’ve become so sophisticated that we’ve about decided that there is no such thing as “literature” and we have lost an object of critical investigation. May be. But I think we would do better, even in these late days of the English crisis, to recover our first love. To figure out why these things that we can only call “literature” with quotation marks to sanitize our embarrassment, somehow nevertheless move us and change us and teach us, all without and well beyond the teaching that comes from the latest theoretical or critical fad. We need more teachers with a passion for literature, a passion for reading that will match their passion for teaching.

It will, of course, take a great deal more than tears and shuddering to repair the condition of the humanities in the world. But by rediscovering that first love we might discover that our passion leads to conviction, which leads to action and changes in ourselves and in others. We might even discover that students can think that literature rather than our theories about it is relevant to the world.