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On a visit to the Public Library

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I just got back from the University City Public Library. I found it to be a more complex experience than what I’d expected, perhaps than what it might be for many people, for the other patrons sharing the space with me on this rainy, cool Sunday in April.

The other day, I was in the adjunct faculty office at Webster University during my office hours when I noticed a sign that the bookshelves were to be cleared. There around a dozen of us adjunct faculty members in English and Philosophy at Webster who share this office. I’ve met two of them, seen one other, and see one regularly since we have the same office hours. There are three desks separated by dividers, a phone, one computer, a couple of windows, a bathroom, and several large bookcases.

Books, the note informed me, that had not been moved to the shelves marked “keep” were going to be given away at the end of April. We should feel free to take things we are interested in before then. I perused the shelf of books still awaiting a final determination of their fate; the ones that had not yet been rescued (or condemned) to be kept. Lots of introductory textbooks on composition and different kinds of technical writing, a few random anthologies of literature, some surveys and histories of Western philosophy. Most of these are fat books. There squeezed in among these I noticed a slim orange sliver of sunset of a spine, maybe a quarter of an inch thick, with the title Passionate Attention: An Introduction to Literary Study.

It’s a book written by one Richard L. McGuire (Ph.D, Rice University, 1968), professor of English at MacMurray College in Illinois, and published by Norton in 1973. The upper right corner of the front cover bears in small print the original selling price: $1.75. The book is 83 pages long, including 2 ½ pages of notes. There is no bibliography and no index. I’m reminded of something Claire and I have noticed and remarked upon at times watching old Hollywood classics: that the opening and closing credits take all of about a minute and a half to go through and that this contrasts so sharply with the seemingly endless trail of credits that follow a contemporary Hollywood film. I very much doubt that Norton, or any other publisher, let alone a university press, would publish an 83 page book today. I might be wrong about whether they would or wouldn’t, but I’m certain that they don’t. Books written by literature professors today – I take the first one that springs to mind off our shelves here at home, a comparatively well-received volume – look more like this: 375 pp., a 5 page index, a 15 page list of Works Cited, 47 pages of notes.

This is not about one is good and the other is bad, not in some ostensibly objective sense of those words. But it is about the poignant longing that the little volume by the-it-turns-out-late Professor McGuire has stirred in me. It’s that longing that took me to the University City Public Library today, that longing that has finally overcome the paralysis and fear that was keeping me from starting this blog, and that longing that I want to try to describe and, perhaps even, promote.

I think that the 70 or so pages of scholarly back-matter in the contemporary academic work, perhaps like the long list of credits in a contemporary Hollywood film, indicate how complex and technically sophisticated such productions have become; how armed they are. I’m thinking of the Spanish word armado, which means not only armed as in bearing weapons, but also assembled, composed. It makes me think of an elaborate construction, designed for unassailability and, perhaps unwittingly, impenetrability. By contrast, Professor McGuire’s slim work struck me as a vulnerable, tender little thing, somehow at once ambitious in its scope and modest in its pretensions. Its 2 and a half pages of footnotes advance no argument, defend no position: they just let you know where to look if you want to find the book from which he has quoted here and there in the course of his little book.

I want to talk in more detail about the book and its argument in another blog entry. Here I only want to indicate that the book, according to the back cover (and I agree with the description): “reminds the reader of the value of his own humanity, experience, and judgment and demonstrates the value, too, of other ways in which human beings have read literature.” In so doing, “it points a sane path between the authoritarian ‘this is the only meaning the work can have’ and the solipsistic ‘it means anything any reader wants it to.” On the one hand, reminder a reader of the value of his own humanity, experience and judgment seems like rather a tall order; on the other hand nothing could be simpler.

Reading through this book and even just weighing it my hand and mind against so much contemporary scholarship, as I say, awakened in me a longing for a writing about literature and culture that could be so simple, so direct, so confident and ambitious and so humble, modest, and tolerant at the same time. The book says, in nearly every way possible including its physical dimensions, “Anybody who can read and feel and think can begin to say something about this vast, living body of human work called “literature. Here is what I have to say about it. I think it’s pretty good, but I’m well-aware that what I’m doing is participating in and trying to facilitate a conversation in which I am just one – and not necessarily the most brilliant, erudite, profound, or eloquent one -- of many, many participants.”

I’d like to write about literature in this way. I’d like for there to be more room in the contemporary academy for writing about literature in this way. I write here, in this blog, hoping that if I’m somewhat despairing about the contemporary academic study of literature, then perhaps there is still a space and a hunger, a longing, for this sort of conversation out there in the world.

And so I went to the University City Public Library today in search of some titles that might nourish and stimulate and satisfy this longing. I went in with a list of a two or three, and came home with ten books (having left about four or five more on the shelf in embarrassment at what I guess felt like some immoderate desire). There were so many interesting books on the shelves there, so many that I'd never heard of and didn't know existed. I felt overwhelmed by a desire to read and read, and then to read more, to feel, to learn, to understand, and to share in writing. All this was in the space of 30 minutes at the Public Library of a relatively small town. What enormous richness and wealth I encountered! What a rhizome of possibilities!

I am a student again, but newly. Same as always, but different. Freshly washed, eager, hungry, opening.

I may be writing about some of these books in this blog. I’m not sure. It depends on what I find when I read (or reread) them. But I know that part of what they represent for me already (even in their currently unread or unreread state) is an older form of literary criticism (most were written in the 1950s and 1960s), one long out of fashion even before I started graduate school in the late 1980s.

I already know that some of what I find there will seem to me to be parochial or elitist, and may be easily associable with philosophical or political views I oppose, but I’m not too worried about that. It’s not entirely that I’m driven by some sort of nostalgia for a past situation of literary criticism, though perhaps I am a little bit. It’s more that I want to rescue something that I think was important in these works and in that time and to see if it can withstand the vital concerns of the present.

I’m interested to explore and perhaps try to resuscitate from these works the simple direct love of reading and of communicating one’s experience of reading, and the firm conviction that this is a valuable and important human activity for its capacity to challenge and enrich our understanding of ourselves and our world and to enlarge the avenues of connection between ourselves and our time and place and other selves and their times and places. I’ll let you know what I find.

3 comments:

Claire April 25, 2010 at 5:04 PM  

You know how graduate students coalesce around the same few books? They all want to read the same ones at the same time, the current cabal with all the secrets. I like how you are throwing yourself after books that no one else has checked out in years. That seems like the right idea to me!

C Meade April 26, 2010 at 1:02 AM  

There is a pretty funny comic by xkcd: (http://disporting.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/screen-shot-2010-04-10-at-1-19-53-pm.png?w=497&h=218>)
At first the comic made me defensive, but the more I think about it, the more I'm glad to be doing something that 'non-professionals' might be able to appreciate, or even to disagree with completely, but informedly. I don't think that is what xkcd was getting at, but my new take is that 'yeah, literature is something we should be able to communicate about with more people, less professionally'.

Yago May 5, 2010 at 4:49 PM  

Thanks Claire! :-) @Chris: I'm glad you're glad! Seriously, though, I am glad to hear of your new take. I think you are well-suited to it and I look forward to seeing the products of it as they emerge.

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