Weekend Miscellany: Good Reading and Common Pursuits

gaudyAlex in Leeds has started on a new relationship . . . with Peter Wimsey. We all know where this leads – to Gaudy Night, which means punting fantasies and a new appreciation for academic robes of the same size. It has actually been years since I’ve read any of the early Wimsey novels, because I like him so much better once Harriet gets involved. Steve wrote up The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club recently too, but despite these encouraging posts I’m still not very tempted. Maybe I will reread The Nine Tailors soon, if only to make up for having recently given Edmund Wilson the benefit of the doubt on the larger issues.

Tom has started on the Palliser series at Wuthering Expectations and as usual he’s mixing it up, including pressing on the popular idea that Trollope is a “comfort” read:

It has taken me a while, but I am beginning to think of Trollope as a great satirist, mild compared to Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh, but at times as fierce as his mentor William Thackeray.  Or Jane Austen, another writer with fangs and claws who is most frequently read for comfort, available by means of ignoring substantial portions of her writing.

 At The Little Professor, Miriam Burstein reviews Derby Day, a neo-Victorian novel I’d never heard of which is not “Dickensian” (for once) but “Thackerayan,” quite literally in that it reworks Vanity Fair:

this is a novel in which there is room both for Amelia and for Becky Sharp, in which the way of duty yields its successes but so, too, does the way of pure self-interest.

 At Tales from the Reading Room, litlove offers a persuasively positive report on Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland:

In this brilliant portrait of uneasy motherhood, Sittenfeld never lets us forget that anxiety and vigilance go hand in hand, and that each magnifies and reinforces the other, a cultural curse on those who are responsible for the young.

 Sarah Emsley can’t wait any longer to get the anniversary celebrations for Mansfield Park underway:

I think the key to understanding Mansfield Park is that it’s a tragedy, rather than a comedy. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that not many people choose it as a favourite from among Austen’s novels. (Natasha Duquette, who’s writing a guest post on part of Chapter 27 – in which Fanny “had all the heroism of principle” – is an exception. Is there anyone else out there whose favourite Austen novel is Mansfield Park? I would love to hear from you!)

JamaicaInnAt Slaves of Golconda you can read the collected posts on Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, which inspired the most unanimity I’ve seen among readers for a while. I think the reason is the magical balance du Maurier finds between what we now often divide artificially into “literary” and “genre” fiction. The novel is a corker of a read (or at least I thought so – at least one GoodReads reviewer declared it “so so so so so boring,” and another called it a “rancid mess,” so really, what do I know?! YMMV!) but it has more than plot to offer. A lot of our interest went to the heroine, Mary Yellan, who is, as Teresa says in her post, “the kind of heroine many women want to see in novels.”

At A Commonplace Blog, D. G. Myers responds to comments on his earlier post “Academe Quits Me.” His key point there, which I think he’s right has been misinterpreted by some of his respondents, is that “where there is no common body of knowledge, no common disciplinary conceptions, there is nothing that is indispensable.” This is not a lament for the demise of a stable canon, as he explains more fully in the follow-up post, but an observation about one of the practical consequences of the way in which our ‘discipline’ has expanded and thus, inevitably, fragmented or dispersed. We do so many (interesting, worthwhile, intellectually challenging) things that it’s become nearly impossible to point to which ones are fundamental. In some ways this is very exciting (like our world, we are large and contain multitudes!), but in other ways, I think he’s right that (especially when resources are scarce) it has made us strangely vulnerable. As he says, “there is no shimmering and comprehensive surface of knowledge in which any gaps might appear” and as a result any particular area of expertise may be perceived as dispensable.

These comments resonated with me because in my own department, we have suffered (and seem poised to suffer further) losses to our full-time complement, and one of the grounds on which we can supposedly petition for replacements (if only there were some prospect of making any appointments) is ‘program integrity’ – but even internally we can’t agree on what that means any more. It may be that we are dealing with the messiness of a transition from one way of organizing our “common pursuit,” around ideas of coverage (literary historical, generic, regional), to another that thinks more about reading strategies, skills, and contexts — from what to read to how to read. We do a lot of both kinds of things in my department now, but the program (the requirements for the major, for instance) has for a long time been organized around the coverage model (ideas of what to cover have, of course, changed and expanded a great deal in recent decades). I’m not sure this is the right way to describe what’s going on, but I found his posts thought-provoking precisely because they articulated something of the confusion I’ve been feeling over our curriculum and have prompted me to keep thinking about how exactly we might — in principle or strategically — redefine that common pursuit.

1 Comment to Weekend Miscellany: Good Reading and Common Pursuits

  1. January 20, 2014 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    “Coverage” was a huge help for me as an undergraduate. I think I can say that it got me interested in English and American literature as a subject, by which I mean that survey classes were where I learned that literature was a field of knowledge.

    I do want want to present myself as a typical case, or think that anyone’s curriculum should be designed for me (now or 15 years ago). Am not; should not.

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