Oates is often an artist of extremes. When it works it really, really works. When it doesn’t it can feel like there’s something manipulative going on, and something that feels too close to exploitation in her obsession with human degradation. I wavered throughout this book. The Satanic motorcycle gang feels cheap and obvious, and the resolution was too quick to be genuine. On the other hand, I found the writing compelling, and i care in the end about the lives of Ingrid and her mother, made crazy by the world of violent or inadequate men that they love or think they love.
Mark Bauerlein, blogging for the Chronicle of Higher Education, posted some interesting reflections on boys and reading this past week . He’s reflecting on the iPulp Fiction Library, which is probably worth a blog in itself. The library, run by a friend of Bauerlein’s, exists to promote reading, especially though not exclusively for boys, by reinvigorating the tradition of the dime novel by providing free online fiction.
A few excerpts from Bauerlein’s blog:
Five years ago I would have written back with something like, “C’mon, can’t we push a little Melville and Swift instead?”
Not anymore. Books of any kind compete with so many digital diversions that just about any fiction that encourages long reading hours is worth a look — pulp or sports or Western or murder mystery or classic novel. Reading researchers believe that sheer volume of reading plays a large role in the acquisition of basic literacy skills and vocabulary, and that print matter of even child-oriented books can be more verbally challenging than some of the best television shows. (Read this entire article and note its far-reaching findings.)
Furthermore, I believe, the boy reading problem is reflected in the growing achievement gap between girls and boys. Admissions officers see this every year. At my old school, UCLA, the entering class last year was 59 percent female. Across town at Cal State-LA, the undergraduate population is 63 percent female. And officials expect the discrepancy to increase.
Bauerlein is touching on one of my pet concerns, partly because I have a son who reads a great deal, while also trying to maintain his coolness quotient in being a basketball and soccer player. While being further concerned with enhancing his growing reputation as a lady killer. Lady killers not found in libraries as a general rule.
“Real Men Don’t Read” could probably be a slogan on a best-selling adolescent t-shirt, is my general guess. Boys learn mostly to impress girls by carrying their books, not by reading them. I also feel this poignant sense of protectiveness for the few men who wander in to my literature classrooms. Among English majors nationally, women outnumber men 3 to 1.
(Side note: a quick google search calls up 5180 pages with some version of the phrase Real Men Don’t’ Read. Fewer than I might have thought, but the idea is out there.)
So, I mostly agree with Bauerlein here. It is surely a truism by now in higher education that there’s a problem with young men and higher education. Indeed, it’s fair to say that more and more colleges are starting to treat them like an underrepresented minority.
(And, incidentally, I see more and more posts from women—including a response to Bauerlein’s blog–that, in a different context, would sound just like white people ridiculing the supposedly inherent inferiority of black people. Along the lines of “If boys weren’t so stupid, there wouldn’t be a problem.”).
The reports from the NEA emphasize just how drastic the non-reading problem is for men as opposed to women. This, in fact, is one of the main reasons I’m dubious of those defensive responses that suggest reading on the net is just as good as any other kind of reading. Studies used to suggest, at least, the higher levels of comfort boys had with the net and all things digital, but that is long past. Even if men are now spending all their time reading online, it apparently isn’t doing them any good. They score consistently far lower than women on all kinds of tests for reading comprehension and language abilities. Indeed, studies suggest that girls now spend more time online and post more written content than boys. Boys dominate in only one area—video content:
Girls continue to dominate most elements of content creation. Some 35% of all teen girls blog, compared with 20% of online boys, and 54% of wired girls post photos online compared with 40% of online boys. Boys, however, do dominate one area – posting of video content online. Online teen boys are nearly twice as likely as online girls (19% vs. 10%) to have posted a video online somewhere where someone else could see it.
All of this goes to show why my daughter thinks it’s weird that I blog, and my son ignores it entirely. I am, no doubt, working out of my feminine side, or perhaps my inner 17-year-old female child.
In any case, generally speaking, I have my doubts that boys are making up for their lack of reading books with a lot of reading and writing on the net.
I think that not a lot of attention has been given to reading material especially for boys in schools. I’ve mentioned Jon Sciezka on this blog before, and I think the work he’s doing with boys’ reading is important. A colleague seemed flummoxed when I suggested to her that for a lot of boys, maybe most boys, The Great Gatsby is the equivalent of a chick flick, as is most of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and most of the others we call greats. Generally speaking, though, I agree with the following post: “Why Hemingway is Chick Lit.” Among other things the post gives us the following completely unscientific but telling anecdote:
“When women stop reading, the novel will be dead,” declared Ian McEwan in the Guardian last year. The British novelist reached this rather dire conclusion after venturing into a nearby park in an attempt to give away free novels. The result?
Only one “sensitive male soul” took up his offer, while every woman he approached was “eager and grateful” to do the same.
We can talk about patriarchal power all we want, but in general patriarchal power is exercised on the playground by those boys who make fun of Shakespeare, not those who actually bothered to read something other than the Spark notes.
Still, I’m a little hesitant. It’s not clear to me that reading a lot of anything is by itself a great thing for reading or a great thing for boys. n+1 famously argued that we’re so obsessed with a reading crisis that we think we should praise everything that’s written and praise anyone who reads the morning paper. I’m not sure that reading a dime novel is in and of itself superior to a film or even a complex video game; better, probably, for developing vocabulary to some degree, but not better for other kinds of developments–assuming that a film and a video game develop different kinds of competencies and visual literacies. It would be important to understand reading on a continuum. What builds the habit of reading in boys, and what makes reading seem like just another drudge assignment?
More from Bauerlein’s blog
More leisure reading might help, and books like iPulp Fiction Library’s appeal to boys a lot more than the “problem stories” and identity narratives that fill Young Adult shelves in the libraries and bookstores. Back in high school, I remember boys passing around books as a kind of cool underground connection — including jocks and “stoners” (as they were called then). I was hit hard by The Brothers Karamazov and The Sound and the Fury when I was 18, but those didn’t catch on. What did was Ball Four, a knuckleballer’s diary of a season with the Seattle Pilots; North Dallas Forty, a novel about a receiver for an NFL team; Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (yes, really); and someone snagged a copy of The Happy Hooker, too.
Do these kinds of secret reading networks still exist? We have Harry Potter, of course, but that’s a different thing, a juggernaut of popularity. Also, there is little evidence that Harry Potter has made many teenage boys read a lot of other books besides Rowling’s. We read the books above not because everybody else did, but because they met a curiosity, or a need, or insecurity, or humor, or heroism that we felt inside, or wanted to. Some of them had some good writing in them, too.
Bauerlein looks like he must be about my age, and the list above confirms it. I never actually got around to Fear of Flying and The Happy Hooker. Much too repressed. On the other hand, Ball Four and North Dallas Forty…Yes, god, yes… Also the Brothers K. Must have been the in book with high school administrative poohbahs in the 70s.
I’ve reflected in the past on the idea that books function as signs to other readers as much or more than as stories that are to be read. The person that—in an earlier generation—carried Catcher in the Rye or On the Road in his hip pocket or who sat sullenly under a tree reading a book while dragging on a cigarette was making a kind of public statement.
To some degree I think this is still true, but I wonder if its been permanently displaced by digital culture. People make a statement by having old-fashioned books at all, not the specific texts that mark them off from readers of other books.
Of course, secret reading networks do exist. One wants to ask Bauerlein if he’s ever been online. But partly that’s the point. They exist facelessly on far flung digital networks rather than being part of the identity formation of groups within industrial-sized high schools.
Also, they have now mostly been displaced by video games. My son and his friends are sorted in two different ways: those who read books and those who don’t, and those who play Halo and those who don’t. The difference is important. Book readers are lumped together regardless of content of what they read—whereas in an earlier age of adolescene boys might have sorted themselves by whether they read Ken Kesey, Isaac Asimov, or Herman Melville. Gamers discriminate among themselves assiduously, marking themselves as belonging to different groups by the games they play and their competence at their choices.
To some degree I wonder how this works with e-book readers. The e-book itself shapes every text to a common and universal appearance. Thus, reading my e-book in the local coffeeshop, I can make a statement about myself as an e-book reader that will draw the attention of others and show my solidarity with others who are technologically sophisticated. But I can’t display the title of the individual book. The dividing line is not between Peyton Place and Moby Dick, but between digital and non-digital, with little room for specific self-display.
Nevertheless, none of this I think gainsays Bauerlein’s general opinion that iPulp is probably a very good thing in general. I browsed over the site. Not generally my cup of tea, but it should be right up the alley of the alienated middle schooler who likes that kind of thing. It looks to me that the site is set up for use on ipods and iphones, but I couldn’t figure out anyway to load to any other kind of reader or even to download to a computer.
Of course, that may itself be only a sign of my general unhip uncoolness when it comes to digital illiteracy. I’ll have to ask my 13 year old how to do it.
After he gets past teaching me how to play Call of Duty.
And Gears of War.
Scandal mongerers alert! Barack Obama’s heretofore unacknowledged sex-change operation threatens to derail his quest for the White House.
(Side Note: I have discovered that including many words like “sex-change,” “porn,” and “diarrhea” really pumps up your blog stats. Count on them from here on out).
“If Clinton loses the nomination, do women lose? Rights? Power? Visibility? Clout? Are they not taken as seriously by the political establishment? A month ago I would have told you yes. Now I believe the answer is no. Why? Because metrosexual, pro-choice, pro-health care, anti-poverty Obama is, in every political sense at least, more of a woman than Clinton.
“Clinton’s female supporters who are watching Obama’s movement coalesce, solidify and take over should console themselves there will be a woman Democrat in the White House either way if the Democrats win the general election. The nominee will either be a woman with double-X chromosomes, or one with XY chromosomes who votes more like a woman than most with XX.”
Perhaps Bonnie Erbe has come up with the true and deeply troubled reason that Barack Obama draws tens of thousands of screaming female fans at whistle stop campaigns throughout the country.
He’s a gender-bender.
And just what does this say about the tens of thousands of screaming young and middle aged men who rush the stage. Deeply repressed problems with gender identity no doubt. Something we have always suspected of limp-wristed liberals and moderates anyway, yes?
Seriously, though, the gender weirdness of this campaign continues to demonstrate that Americans have a keenly developed, if not completely sick, sense of the politics of sexuality and gender. Obama is suspicious because he is too much of a woman, and Clinton is unappealing because she is too much of a man.
It is interesting to me, though, that Obama combines and focuses a great deal of discursive energy when it comes to the politics of not only race but gender. Several years ago in a class I was discussing the tradition of Black Christs within African American religion. My students, mostly young female Christians, largely agreed when one said that as she tried to imagine Christ as an AFrican American, she imagined he was more definitively male than the white Christ she had grown up with.
Well, this is the classic stereotype that we’ve lived with since the 20s. (I realize I’ve already posted on this, but I just can’t get over it) Black men are somehow supposed to be outrageously and uncontrollably masculine–all brawny testosterone, no brains, no tenderness. White men are somehow soft and feminine–at least if they are religious or educated. Jesus holding Mary’s little lamb. Obama’s “metrosexuality”–his softness, his charm (think, what kind of men do we describe as charming?)–humanizes the threatening masculinity his blackness might otherwise entail for white audiences. Clinton’s ill-fated effort to paint Obama as a seducer, as well as the effort to link Obama’s appeal to Jesse Jackson was not only dismissive, it was also an effort to link him to an older form and stereotype of threatening black male sexuality.
But now that we know he’s actually a woman. We don’t have to worry about any of that, do we?
Is it any wonder that the rest of the world wonders when we will grow up?
Garrison Keillor, a personal favorite, has broken for Obama. As I suspected a while back, Obama seems to be doing well with the literary crowd—gathering in Michael Chabon, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and now Garrison Keillor. There may be others, but I can’t find them in the five minutes I can afford looking around on the web. Still, it’s not a total lock. Maya Angelou and John Grisham have put in for Clinton, with Angelou putting forth with about as much sagacious pomposity as Morrison mustered for Obama. According to Angelou, embedded below, we should be attracted to Clinton because “she gives herself authority to be in her own skin… to be who she is.” We further discover that Hillary has the honesty to stand up and say “Yes, I am a woman.” And further that she is her mother and grandmother and an great grandmother and great greats. And all women. And she is even Maya Angelou.
Going to be a crowded Lincoln bedroom. And here we thought we were only going to get a two-fer with Hillary and Bill.
Seriously though, I have some trouble with the notion that women ought to vote for Hillary because she’s a woman, any more than a man ought to vote for Obama because he’s a man or because he’s black, or McCain because he’s a man or because he’s white. This being said, I know it happens, consciously and unconsciously. So I don’t have an absolute problem with Angelou being straightforward about it. What strikes me, however, is that Clinton supporters have been quite frank and straightforward in arguing that people ought to vote for Clinton because she’s a woman. I don’t see quite the same straightforward statement by any prominent black supporters of Obama. And of course it would be absolutely politically impossible for someone to get up and say they were voting for Obama or McCain or Huckabee because they were men. So the rhetorical strategies are still interesting. What’s allowed and what’s not allowed. My general sense, still, is that Obama is the wiser in playing down a unique appeal to a “natural” constituency. Can Clinton speak for and to everyone. She doesn’t really try to make that case, and I imagine it will cost her in a general election.
Back to Keillor. Much more understated as befits a Minnesotan. Though, it must be said that Keillor’s understatement is no less strategic or conventional the Angelou’s and Morrison’s self-inflation.
“I’m happy to support your candidacy, which is so full of promise for our country,” the best-selling author and humorist wrote in a letter declaring his support. “Seven years of a failed presidency is a depressing thing, and the country is pressing for a change and looking for someone with clear vision who is determined to break through the rhetorical logjam and find sensible ways to move our country forward. That’s you, friend.”
“And of course it will be exciting to have a president who can speak with grace and power to the American people,” Keillor wrote.
A war that’s left 10s of thousand dead or maimed, and has saddled our grandchildren with crippling debts has left Keillor depressed. Well, perhaps this is self-inflation of a very understated sort. From what I gather though, many things leave the good Lutheran depressed, and for the melancholy another thirty or forty thousand dead is par for the course in the scheme of things.
Keillor’s compliments to Obama’s rhetoric stand out. Obama couldn’t muster a great deal of grace and power in his response, however.
“I’ve been entertained and inspired by Garrison Keillor’s work through the years,” Obama said in a statement. “As president, I will wake up every day thinking about how I can help make life better in places like Lake Wobegon all across the country.”
Umm. Ok. This is EXACTLY why I thought Obama was running. To help all those good folks with white picket fences in the land that time forgot. It’s an interesting contrast, of course, since Keillor, despite his liberalism, has made his literary career on the examination of a white ethnic community as “typically American” in an era when it’s typicality has faded by the hour. Indeed, there is no measure of how atypical Lake Woebegon really is than the candidacy of Barack Obama.
Have they even seen black people in Lake Woebegon. I have my doubts. As much as I love the show. I can’t remember a single one.
Since getting started on this blog I’ve been thinking a lot about how we image reading, and more broadly knowledge. The classic picture of a man or woman, body slumped in a chair or reclining on a bed or laying under a tree, head inclined in to a book. This is our sense of what reading is, and in a larger sense of how knowledge is gained and demonstrated.
It’s a difficult image in some respects because, in fact, we can’t really tell whether reading is going on at all simply from the fact of its physical representation. For all we know the person who seems as if they are half-asleep may in fact be half-asleep. Think of the association of reading fiction with being in dream worlds. The act of reading itself, especially silent reading, is in some respects unimage-able. We can’t see the translations that occur between marks on a page that become letters and words and then are associated with meanings in the mind. We accept on trust that the student with her book open in the back of the room is, in fact, reading, rather than drifting into a half-world as we lecture on at the front of the room.
I think working on the blog has made me acutely more interested in the physical image of reading. How could I choose relevant images for a blog taken up with something so ethereal as reading? My avatar came from a library at Upsala University (I think, I can’t remember). I was taken by the classic image of the hunched body at the desk, but also that it was obviously a middle-aged man, somewhat monkish. Finally, that you couldn’t see the face—which seemed to me to be something about reading and something about what I wanted the blog to be. Reading is a kind of facelessness, a kind of disappearance of the self that is itself enriching and expansive. This is why I think all the focus on reading as creativity and self-assertion among so many poststructuralists—people like Roland Barthes who want to turn reading in to an alternative form of writing—is missing something that’s relatively essential and important. The disappearance of the self in reading is precisely what we desire. The loss of self is goal, not dread outcome of the process of reading.
One thing that struck me in searching for an appropriate avatar—which I pursued by searching Google images—is that images of reading are almost exclusively associated with books. Reading means, so far as the visual imagination is concerned, reading books. I sifted through a couple of dozen pages of images and came up with not one image of a computer or a computer screen. Indeed, realizing that I was interested in pursuing the conjunction of reading and writing, I thought it was a little ironic that my wordpress template has a pen at the top. Of course, I have the option of putting in a computer keyboard, and tried to find one, but perhaps the point is made. In our imaginations, reading and writing is still a matter of pen and paper. As I said yesterday, my colleague is not even certain that what we do on things like this blog is properly called writing. Why call it blogging if it is writing plain and simple. Similarly, we surf the web, we don’t read the web. It’s a new and different process, for which we don’t have adequate visual images.
My same colleague objects that we won’t go with electronic books because we like the physicality of things. Well…I didn’t point out to her that, in fact, Kindles and Sony readers and my 17-inch Macintosh computer screen are all physical to a fault. But somehow we imagine that computers have no physical presence. Without physical presence they cannot image that most insubstantial of things, the reading process. In actual fact, I think that we have constructed a certain kind of “physicality” that we associate with books, while we are only beginning to develop a sense of the physicality of computers.
Along these lines, our library at school is hosting a very nice work of art by a couple of our students. A book with reading glasses. I’m having trouble optimizing this to fit on the page, but you can access ” Vision of Knowledge” by clicking on the title. My general sense is that computers make both books and reading glasses anachronistic. We can read on the Internet, and if the text is too small, who needs glasses. Just hit text zoom.
The other interesting thing about this image is the text itself, which, of course, we read. “A vision of knowledge.” My general sense is that despite the tremendous emphasis on the Internet as a resource for knowledge and learning, we continue to imagine, to have visions of knowledge primarily through our cultural repertoire related to books. Again, a quick google search for images related to the word “knowledge” called up dozens of pictures of books, various diagrams of the brain, and a lot of variously dull and variously interesting charts and graphs. One thing that didn’t come up were images of computers. I scrolled through about 100 and some odd images before I got to any image of a computer at all.
I’m not sure that there’s any great lesson to be drawn here. However, I think that if we can’t picture something, this means that we don’t quite know what to do with it, that we don’t quite know what it is, at least for us. The digital world is inescapable, but at least with regards to reading and knowledge we still don’t know exactly what it means, how to imagine ourselves as a part of it.
Side note: There’s a lot of stuff out there on the gender of reading, of course. There’s an absolutely fabulous book of images entitled “Reading Women” that I recommend highly. At one point I thought ALL images of reading were women, though this, of course, isn’t true at all.
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.
Actually not, since half the time I think Dowd substitutes irratibility for thoughtfulness. Still, I thought this article was an interesting reflection on some of the gender issues I’ve also been taking up the last couple of days. According to Dowd:
“There was a poignancy about the moment, seeing Hillary crack with exhaustion from decades of yearning to be the principal rather than the plus-one. But there was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up. What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing. “
This strikes me as unfairly harsh. Clinton is a few country miles from Nixonian. But it does suggest that Clinton’s own construal of the gender war that’s going on over emotion is suspect. Clinton defended herself by saying male leaders are allowed to cry while women aren’t. All tears are not, in fact, equal, nor do they communicate similar things.
Men do, in fact, cry on the campaign trail. Strategically, no less. Cynically, no doubt. But the prospect of a man gaining points by crying because the trail is so hard and the people so unheeding is unfathomable.
Dowd goes on:
“Hillary sounded silly trying to paint Obama as a poetic dreamer and herself as a prodigious doer. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” she said. Did any living Democrat ever imagine that any other living Democrat would try to win a presidential primary in New Hampshire by comparing herself to L.B.J.? (Who was driven out of politics by Gene McCarthy in New Hampshire.)”
“Her argument against Obama now boils down to an argument against idealism, which is probably the lowest and most unlikely point to which any Clinton could sink. The people from Hope are arguing against hope.”
Author! Author! Of course, I’m always most impressed with Dowd’s brilliance when she agrees with my own brilliant opinions.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Library of Congress, in conjunction with the Children’s book Council, has appointed Jon Scieszka as its first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Scieszka is the author of a number of very enjoyable children’s books, most notably The Stinky Cheeseman. My son liked it just for the title. We don’t remember a great deal about the content. I also like Scieszka’s emphasis on getting boys to read through his website, guyread.com, the gendered status of reading being another general concern of mine
I’m intrigued by two aspects of this announcement. First, Librarian of Congress James Billington suggested in his remarks about the appointment that “We think it’s very important to have an evangelist for reading.” In the official news release from the LOC, Billington goes on to say
“Jon Scieszka will be an articulate emissary, promoting reading and literature among young people, which are important for the health and creativity of our democratic society.”
Robin Adelson, executive director at Children’s Book Council, added,
“Jon Scieszka’s platform will spotlight the diversity and breadth of children’s literature available today and in so doing present a solution to what can be done to change the state of reading in this country.”
The metaphors are mixed, but all of them are fascinating. If we need a reading evangelist, it must be the case that the country as a whole is among the unwashed and unregenerate, that the gospel of reading comes to us from afar. We have seen and heard, but not understood. Reading, in fact, can save us. Reading is also in need of an emissary to help the non-reader understand it’s excellencies. Billington has something of a misplaced metaphor since I would assume that everyone agrees that young people are important for the health and creativity of our democratic society. I’m not sure, though, that everyone agrees that reading and literature are important for the health and creativity of our democratic society.
Will reading and literature, reading in general and reading literature in particular, heal us of all our woes? My being lurches to say “Amen” and raise my hands in testimony to the gospel of literary reading; this is, after all, the great rationale for the study of literature since at least Matthew Arnold. Whether it’s really true or not is another question. Human cultures have existed quite well without written literature, and fascist societies exhibited widespread literacy. But I do think it’s an intriguing question as to whether broad-based democracies can exist without effective levels of literacy. Something that doesn’t leave us at the mercy of the soundbite. In societies that have had print, reading and writing have been primarily associated with the ruling classes. The development of democracy, the widespread availability of print media, and rising levels of literacy have tended to go hand in hand, even if the connections are accidental rather than essential. (Widespread literacy didn’t prevent fascism, for instance, though I’ve seen some interesting discussions on the primary role of radio—an oral/aural new media of the day—in the rise of Nazism).
Still, Billington and Adelson draw on a rhetoric that seems pretty common to me in recent responses to the “reading crisis.” Reading will make us better. Though what better means is sometimes left to the vagueness of terms like “health” and “creativity.” Interestingly, reading hasn’t always enjoyed this healthy reputation. There’s a long tradition in literature of suspicion of the health effects provoked by reading. The first great Western novel, Don Quixote, is primarily about how excessive reading deranges the mind. Women who read too much are repeatedly driven to adultery and suicide. Men who read too much become soft and effeminate or lazy and irresponsible. Or demonically possessed. Or murderous. Authors’ revenge on their imperious audience, perhaps?
Now, however, reading is right up there with health club memberships and anti-smoking campaigns. If things get much worse, I suspect we will have Senate inquiries with testimony from Madonna and Angelina Jolie on the deleterious effects of non-reading.
The other issue that interests me about this new program is that it is sponsored by Cheerios. I could go on about the fact that, if a public entity like the Library of Congress is truly convinced that reading will save us, shouldn’t we devote public funds to the effort and not leave it in the hands of General Mills. At least it’s not being sponsored by Lucky Charms, I guess.
But that’s another subject, my real interest here is that the named culprits for our so-called reading crisis are manifold: television, the internet, poor parenting, poor teaching, etcetera. One culprit regularly left out is….corporate America. Or, contemporary global capitalism more generally. I don’t think I want to go the orthodox Marxist route and suggest that an ignorant and unreading labor force serves the purposes of international corporations. (Though, hey, it is convenient, isn’t it?)
I’m more interested in the ways in which the shape of our economy has simply changed the time available for reading. The average work week has ballooned to 47 hours per worker, lower than the industrial workers of the nineteenth century but significantly higher than three decades ago when the NEA first started getting worried about the state of reading. In addition, the average American is now spending nearly an hour a day commuting to and from work. Finally, this figure now includes 60 per cent of women, who have always made up the highest percentage of readers. Only 19% of women were in the paid labor force in 1900.
Thus, even though the average work week in 1900 was longer at 50+ hours (lower, however, for educated white collar workers), the average family is now spending a great deal more time in the work place with relatively less time for anything—political and civic participation, reading, much less necessary housework like washing dishes and clothes, fixing the gutters and mowing the lawn.
I’m surprised, frankly, that we don’t have a crisis in lawn care. Though, to be honest, we do have a crisis in lawn care at my house, and I’m not sure it has anything to do with the work week.
The shape of contemporary corporate capitalism is driven by the need for efficiencies and documentable productivity. This is true even of life in higher education—which used to be a fairly sleepy affair designed to give marginally paid professors the time to read and think. No longer. Public universities gauge productivity by how many pages you publish in which prestigious journals. Or how many student units you are able to teach per course hour. No wonder we have so many studies on Madonna and American Idol. Easier to watch TV. Reading Don Quixote, much less the latest novel, just to read doesn’t fit the system.
If someone could prove that reading Don Quixote would improve the corporate bottom line, I’m sure we’d all be given afternoon breaks and required to read. Corporations already sponsor gyms and health club memberships to keep down the costs of health insurance. If reading is so good for us, let’s ask that businesses provide us all with reading rooms and give us new forty-five minute breaks each day to catch up on our reading.
Now there’s an idea whose time has come. I think I’ll preach its gospel.
I love this picture of Jon Scieszka, but does this look like the picture of a man you’d trust your children with in the stacks of a library?