“It’s important that we understand what really happened. Because that’s the only way we can stop it from happening again.”
Last year’s election of Donald Trump prompted me to write an open breakup letter to American political coverage. My resolve has eroded steadily over the past 10 months, but it shattered today. This morning I started reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s 464-page memoir of the 2016 election, and I finished it in the afternoon. I couldn’t put it down – not because it’s another insider account of public events, but because it’s so much more than a private memoir. (Also, it was my birthday. And I’m on sabbatical. So my inbox could wait.)
A few months ago in this space, I wrote about choosing novels to teach in a graduate course I’m offering this fall. I was convinced that novels were necessary because it’s a course on digital text-analysis, among other topics in the digital humanities. And because my exemplary critics Stephen Ramsay and Matthew Jockers (required reading for the course) focus on 19th- and 20th-century novels in their work.
Now I’m refocusing on two text types that are (arguably) extra-novelistic, at least in form: Samuel Pepys’s Diary, a daily record of his life between 1660 and 1669; and an anthology of sonnets, those 14-line poems made famous by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and company.
I’d be in radio if I wasn’t an academic. Not the WKRP disc-jockey kind of radio, but the tweedy public-radio kind. The kind that produces a 5-hour intellectual biography of Northrop Frye, or Eleanor Wachtel’s long, thoughtful interviews with writers like A.S. Byatt or Kazuo Ishiguro. I mean radio that exposes you to ideas and people and books you haven’t read yet, but should. (Or better yet, the kind that gives you just enough knowledge to get away without reading them.)
“The experience of reading poetry aloud when you don’t fully understand it is a curious and complicated one. It’s like suddenly discovering that you can play the organ. Rolling swells and peals of sound, powerful rhythms and rich harmonies are at your command; and as you utter them you begin to realize that the sound you’re releasing from the words as you speak is part of the reason they’re there. The sound is part of the meaning, and that part only comes alive when you speak it.”
I’m designing the graduate seminar I’ll teach in the Department of English this fall (2015) on the subject of ‘Algorithmic Criticism,’ a title I took from the subtitle of Stephen Ramsay’s 2011 book, Reading Machines. It’s an introduction to computational text-analysis for students of literature, from word frequency to topic modelling.
By the end of the course, students will be comfortable moving between close reading and distant reading, or what Matthew Jockers calls micro-, meso-, and macro-analysis. (Along with Ramsay’s book, Jockers’ 2013 study Macroanalysis and his 2014 guide to Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature will be required readings.)
A word, if you will, in praise of the audiobook.
I’m listening now, for the second time with my second child, to the 7-book 20+hour Harry Potter series, read by the incomparable Stephen Fry. Fry’s voice is like treacle pudding, warm and inviting. (He’s particularly good at bears, from Pooh to Paddington.)
But you don’t need a treacly voice to charm listeners; a good story will do it just as well. Roald Dahl’s pinched and prickly voice reading of his Fantastic Mr Fox was my childhood favourite – and though it’s hard to find today (even his official web site disavows it), it’s in regular rotation in my house.
And deliberately so. Its editor J. C. Squire deliberately contrasts it with Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse or Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Those were the Norton Anthologies of their day: the canon of recognized poetic genius and all that, the most widely admired and recited poems.
This will come as a shock, no doubt: as an academic, I own some books that I have not read.
There, I said it. Admitting you have a problem, they say, is the first step to fixing it. But what if you have no intention or desire to fix it? What if it’s more a chronic condition than a problem?
My condition is that mix of bibliophilia and ambition that leads me to buy books to complete a set, fill out a series, extend an aesthetic line, and keep each other company. Sure, it’s object fetishism – but that’s justified easily enough. I tell myself that many of these books contain knowledge I might someday read, consult, cite, or peruse. Might is the operative, delusional word there – as if I have to own something to read it.
Let’s put aside the books that are part of my working library, the ones I use for teaching and research. Consider instead this specimen:
“The Child is father of the Man,” William Wordsworth once wrote, counter-intuitively. What you experience in youth shapes your grown-up sensibility. My first post in this series on bookshelves was in that vein.
In the same way, the Book is maker of the Reader. Books change our minds, shift our perceptions, enlarge our imaginations. They enable readers to experience unfamiliar things, to see the world as if they had different circumstances. They enable us to empathize with other people more readily. Martha Nussbaum has said as much about the humanities in general.
I got a stack of books for my ninth birthday. They were the types of books that kids read in the 1980s: Gordon Korman’s Macdonald Hall series; Roald Dahl’s Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar; Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw. Three decades later, I remember that stack being about four feet high, but it was probably shorter. I took them to my room and arranged them, three separate times, on shelves: first by author, then by size, then by the order I would read them. I experimented with different shelving regimens everywhere in my room: alphabetically by author; by genre (science books here, Archie digests there); by size; and by series.