Simplicity in habit, truth in speech,
Be these the daily strengtheners of their minds;
May books and Nature be their early joy!
And knowledge, rightly honored with that name–
Knowledge not purchased by the loss of power!
-William Wordsworth, from The Prelude
It’s hard for me to not feel a little nostalgic when I return to the literary criticism of many decades past, back when texts in the field—at least the most important ones—enjoyed both popular and academic audiences. How long has it been since we’ve had a Seven Types of Ambiguity or a The Mirror and the Lamp, books read and respected equally by literary critics and lay enthusiasts? The crop of books that attempt any popularization of literary study is increasingly sparse these days: something by Harold Bloom every few years, of course, and there’s the recent success of Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, and How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form. However, few of these command the attention of academics in the field—the expert and the amateur now wander through different valleys.
This separation may be an unavoidable consequence of the hyper-specialization that permeates all of modern academe, including the social and physical sciences, and I’m not suggesting that we invest our energy in trying to turn back the heavy hands of that clock. However, there’s another trend that I think it is worthwhile trying to buck, a trend evident in the subtitles to the “like a professor” books; these are not merely accessible explications of the field and its methodologies, they are “lively and entertaining” and “jaunty” explications. I think that Prof. Foster’s project is a commendable one and I shy away from criticizing anyone in the humanities who still makes a sincere attempt to talk to the general public about what we do. However, something is gone awry when the selling point of our popularizations is that they’re “fun”—and not that they matter.