Thursday, April 23, 2009

At the Chronicle: "Against Readings"

Dr. Crazy has a long and fine post about Mark Edmundson's "Against Readings" at the Chronicle. Her analysis is more, well, analytical than mine is going to be, so go and read it. She agrees and yet doesn't agree with him, and I can see why.

Edumundson's argument is really seductive in a Culture and Anarchy kind of way: "the best that has been known and thought." When you're reading that book for the first time, especially as a naive reader, you just want to say,"oh, give me the touchstone, Matthew Arnold, and I'll be as good and sensitive a critic as you are--I promise." And certainly we've all read our fair share of the kind of mechanical-application-of-theory-to-texts-criticism he's critiquing, as in "here are five things that Judith Butler says about performing gender, and here are the five points in X text that prove her point."

(And I can't help taking umbrage at this: "Prius-proselytizing." Hey! You talking to me?)

But this seductive vision of reading also demands some absolutes, or maybe binaries, that make me squirm. For example, if you read between the lines, it's clear that there are two kinds of books: the kind that transforms your life, and the kind that doesn't. The first kind is literature, and the second kind isn't.

Here's the problem: while he's right about "befriending the book" in the sense of reading it with an open mind as to its possibilities, and to teaching it in the same way, it's possible to befriend a book that you don't like and that hasn't transformed your life at all, especially if you've chosen to teach it for some reason.

For example, haven't you ever worked up enthusiasm to teach a book that personally left you cold? Heck, I've befriended some texts I didn't care for to the point of going steady with them, but what made that unholy partnership possible was my understanding of how well they performed some particular literary or cultural task, an understanding made possible by understanding some theoretical frameworks, even the New Criticism that's at the heart of his "no criticism" idea. I think what he's saying is that the book that left you cold--say, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent*--but that you could understand conceptually was great might transform a student's life.

I always feel a little dishonest in presenting the books in this way, though, and if I'm going to make Blakean ecstasy and the power to change lives criteria for course books, that creates a problem. How can we know which books will change lives until we teach them? And since as far as I know there isn't a Norton Anthology of Changing Lives and Creating Ecstasy in the Reader, the judgment is still going to rest with us as teachers to balance what we like, what we know students like, and what gets across the concepts that we hope will catch fire with students.

*I know it's supposed to be great, but years ago it just plain left me cold. Are there any books that you feel this way about?


Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, true story. A book that I felt this way about (as you felt about Conrad's Secret Agent) as a reader was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It has since become the primary literary text in the introduction to my book, published in the fall. And though I now appreciate it more than I did on first reading, I'll tell you with no hesitation that it is not a "favorite" book of mine, nor would I ever read it on a rainy day for fun. Sure, there are brilliant passages and beautiful ones. But I don't *like* it. Not on he whole. No, I don't.

But I've taught it. And I've written about it. It's a book I believe in, but it's not a book I love, nor is it a book that has transformed me. And I've taught it and have written about it not because I was compelled to do so by "need," but rather because it allowed me to think about what I wanted to think about and allowed my students to think about things they couldn't think about without it.

Is that dishonest? I don't think so. I think that is being intellectually engaged.

I'm so glad that you did this post. And you note the thing that I elided in my post - that we all sort of agree with him about - that a theoretical reading that just overlays some theoretical edicts onto a text is garbage. The point is, though, that rejecting "readings" isn't the answer to that.

heu mihi said...

Maybe it's Conrad, but the book that I've read multiple times (and taught, even) and that leaves me cold is *Heart of Darkness*. Bad of me, I know.

Oh, and I started *Nostromo*--it was assigned in a seminar--and didn't get past page 50. Clearly, I am not a Conrad fan.

Oddly enough, though, I liked *The Secret Agent* much better. Go figure.

Susan said...

So, as a historian I'm spared teaching them, but when I was in college I remember reading Lawrence (Sons & Lovers, I think) and thinking "I can see why this is considered a great book, but really, I'm not interested." I also felt this way about Ulysses. That is, I was smart enough to get the literary value, but it did not connect to me at all. Now I'm sure that had to do with my being *very* self-consciously feminist at the time, and 22: these were novels that struck me as so totally inside the man's head that I did not care.

undine said...

Dr. Crazy, I think you're right; it isn't dishonest. And there's usually something I can legitimately get excited about in teaching any text. But if they asked me if I *liked* the work, I'd feel obliged to say what I thought.

heu mihi, I'm trying to remember if I read "Nostromo" or not; it was a course with a LOT of Conrad. "The Secret Agent" is supposed to be the best, and I was hoping to like it, but alas, not so. I should try it again.

Susan, I remember liking Lawrence but got tired of some of his stylistic tricks: "She could not bear it" x 1000. I felt this way about "Lolita": I could see all the puzzles, puns, literariness, and everything, but I just did not enjoy the experience of reading it.

We ought to put together "Top 10 Great Books that Left You Cold."

Ink said...

Thanks for the link--you make so many good points.

Heart of Darkness would also be my example. (Though really, just Conrad in general makes me unhappy and slightly crazed.)

undine said...

Thanks, Ink. At least "Heart of Darkness" didn't affect me the way Lolita did. Having been a prepubescent girl at one time, unlike my professor, I was angered by it, no matter how many times it was pointed out to me, when I was reading it for my exams, "Don't you see? Humbert's the sympathetic one! She has all the power! And anyway, see how literary this is? Did you see this puzzle?" Since I didn't want to get a reputation for someone who was stirred by literature in any way (affective fallacy!) or who didn't "get" the book's literariness, or who was just one of those "humorless" feminists, I shut up and moved on.

But I haven't reread it in the years since. And, thinking about American Psycho (which I mentioned over at your place), I've wondered over the years why violence against women should be ignored in a "great" text--indeed, sometimes seems to define a "great" text, as in American Psycho--and why a disinterested perspective on it has become such a mark of one's critical acumen.

Somehow I think a book that graphically depicted serial castration would not be seen as seriously literary at all, at all.

undine said...

D. G. Myers has a series of posts about Lolita at A Commonplace Blog, if you'd rather have a fairer and more rational response than mine.