The Long and Ashy Road

Despite my ongoing interest in Oprah and her book club (you read it here first: she’ll return to it with a vengeance once she has her own cable network), I did not read her 2007 book selection, the Pulizer prize winning Cormac McCarthy novel The Road, until this weekend.  During Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house (where we ate a lovely, very non-Americana dinner of beef bourguignon a la Julia Child) the hostess begged us to read it so she could talk about it with others.  My friend (a Henry James scholar and now administrator—but don’t hold that against her) thought the novel so haunting, so emotionally affecting, that she read it twice (this despite it being about ¼ the length of a typical James novel).

So I picked up the novel on Friday and finished it (between grading, socializing, cleaning, etc) this morning.  And she is right: it IS haunting (it takes place post some sort of natural disaster, though those who felt the ash of Mount Saint Helen’s eruption in 1980 might have an idea). It also teeters on bad Hemingway in the sparseness of its language (this quote from the novel is  from Jennifer Egan’s glowing review in Slate comparing the McCarthy’s moral vision to Hemingway’s):

After they discover a basement full of human prisoners who will be used for food, the boy asks his father, (aka “the man”—similar to Hemingway’s the man and the girl in “Hills Like White Elephants”):

 We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
You said we weren’t.
I said we weren’t dying. I didn’t say we weren’t starving.
But we wouldn’t.
No. We wouldn’t.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.

But, once I got over that, and just allowed the simple sentences to work their incantatory magic (and just as in good Hemingway, they do), I was hooked.

The story of a father and son in search of food and survival, and some more good guys, years after the world was practically destroyed, where the few humans left have either become more fully godlike, thus empathetic and altruistic, or more fully human (and thus selfish, self serving, desperate), with a few sort of tottering in between.  The boy provides the moral compass in the story, reminding his father to retain what little humanity he has left. The father is a biblical figure, and if I knew the bible better I’d be able to figure out which one (the person who originally owned my used copy of the book had some wonderful annotations, pointing out references to Yeats and the prophet Elijah, but I’m not sure I buy the father as the Christ figure: the boy has more of Christ in him).

So yes, it’s the basic post-apocalyptic novel, though without aliens, just alienated humans.  I can imagine Hemingway’s Jake and Brett as the father and mother, and the child a throwback to those pre WWII times (she has a minor role in the novel, though it looks like, with Charlize Theron in the role, the mother has a much bigger role in the film). It’s one of those novels that will be discussed in Faith and Fiction classes alongside Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (with its father and son travelling by foot in the post-Civil War south). It’s one of those novels that would work nicely with many a Hemingway novel: although for Hemingway, grace is in keeping a stiff upper lip, while for McCarthy, grace is in keeping the fire and light of compassion within lit, a much more optimistic moral, though also one that I can’t imagine films well.

And the novel has flaws: it’s painful and horrific at times to read (though for me, the style of the writing mitigates the horror, which in itself is a bit of a horror if you think about it), but despite their months-long travel with each day being darn similar to the next, I still found it engrossing. Luckily, I’ve avoided most commentary on the novel, so I didn’t know exactly how it would end. I suspect there are those who would argue that the ending is contrived, and contradictory (I’m being deliberately vague here for those who haven’t read it), but it also provides the reader with the necessary catharsis after the long, tense journey.

But I couldn’t help the little voice in my head echoing the last line in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Multiple Blogiality Disorder

Last December I gave a lecture on Oprah’s Book Club, and based on my emphatically positive spin on the Oprah Effect, I was recruited by an eager colleague to assist in starting a faculty and staff blog: a public space for our rapidly growing institution to remind each other who we are and what we do.

We’ve been active for a few months now: our small blog task force has reached out to those faculty and staff members who we think might have something interesting to write about (and who might actually want to take time out of their busy daily lives to do so).

Based on the blog stats, people are reading these postings (with truly novel takes on subjects such as post- modernity, social networking,  soap and chemistry, and “generation me”).   One faculty member “outed” herself as an anonymous blogger of mostly mother and teaching related reflections when she agreed to cross post on our college blog. Another faculty member who posted is also a blogger, but not an anonymous one: she links to both blogs on Facebook, and enjoys the cross pollination of the various public forums.

This week, for the college blog, we are encouraging faculty and staff to submit their summer reading lists.  I am getting some interesting titles, but not as many as I’d hoped.

Despite a slow start, it’s been rewarding starting this new blog—which has yet to really find its footing.  Is the college blog a public relations tool of sorts (not that the PR folks are selling it in any way), or is it just another form of a “Water Cooler” that we have on our internal e-mail system? Right now, it seems to be the latter, but what is most interesting is that because I am one of the public faces of this new blog, I am often confused as the writer of many of the postings—folks stop by on campus to thank me for my interesting posts about Facebook or teaching, and I have to stop and remember that they mean my colleagues’ posts on the college blog (not Annie Em’s posts on those same subjects).

It’s a little unnerving.

This blog, too, is still trying to find its niche: partly educational, partly self reflection, partly a pastiche of links that amuse me.  But that’s ok.  I’ll keep writing and see where it goes.  While I don’t have the talent to write stories like TK,  or the charm to blog on life like Inky, or the wit of Acadamnit, I enjoy the process of writing a blog posting.  Tenured Radical (a rather well-known blogger) has a thoughtful recent 400th posting where she reflects upon her rather satisfying “career” as a blogger, a public intellectual of the 21st century.

That’s a marvelous goal, to be a public intellectual.

One of my students this term came to chat with me about that: he wants to be a public intellectual when he grows up (he’s 22) and asked me what he should major in!  I was truly at a loss. What would you have said?

Since he was sitting there in my soon to be small, old office, waiting for me to give him advice, I ultimately said something, though it probably sounded like a rambling list to the poor guy:  I said that it didn’t matter what he majored in, as long as he took a variety of classes, challenging classes, too.  I said it was probably more important that he write and participate in conversations as often as possible.  That he travel and become involved in the world around him. I gave him a list of titles of books by writers I consider to be public intellectuals, and encouraged him to take classes with professors on campus who I think would be possible mentors for him.

And then I said I hoped we could chat again someday after spring term when my brain was not quite as mushy.

I hope he does stop by to chat next week after he hands in his research paper (an approach on a topic that is, of course, original and challenging).  Maybe I’ll tell him to start a blog.

Why Does Literature Matter?

My Oprah’s Book Club talk last week (discussed here) led to a 3-page conclusion on why her 12-year old book club encourages readers to address the question, why does literature matter?  I quoted Morris Dickstein’s recent essay (also posted here).  I always bring this question up in my literature classes (from introductory to senior seminars) and it almost always leads to wonderful discussions that re-emerge throughout the term and reappear, more thoughtfully, on final exams.  While it’s obvious that this question is one of those enduring ones, during a time when the percentage of people who read literature is falling, we who still believe in its value need to spread the word. Thus ended my talk.

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education addresses that same question (though they phrase it in as “What Ails Literary Studies?”) in a trio of articles related to the question of why literature matters (and the e-mail newsletter also links to a 10 year old article on the same question). From the Newsletter, here are the links—my comments on each are below:

What Ails Literary Studies

The Joy of the Hoi Polloi

By Rita Felski

The Must-Read Recede

By Steven G. Kellman

The Elite Conceit

By Bruce Fleming

The 10-year old article is described below:


This week three scholars consider the imperiled state of literary studies. But bemoaning the field’s situation is a longstanding specialty of its own. In 1997, for instance, John M. Ellis lamented the discipline’s derangement in Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. Michael Bérubé wrote a roundabout, cheeky Chronicle rejoinder to the book, and to Frank Kermode’s defense of it in The Atlantic Monthly.


Felski’s article, “The Joy of the Hoi Polloi”, most closely responds to my Why Does Literature Matter question. She argues that instead of trying to defend literature’s usefulness, “what literary studies sorely needs…is a nonutilitarian understanding of use.”   What she calls the “idea of recognition” –when the reader recognizes herself in a character—is affective reading: we need to encourage such a personal response to the literature, to use, as I remember fondly using, that old thesis-template phrasing we used in high school: “in literature as in [my] life”.  Felski even echoes the same metaphor I used in my talk (though she doesn’t apply it to Oprah): that literature professors need to build a bridge between theory and what she calls “common sense”—basically, non-academic reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing some of the ideas I’ve been grappling with so eloquently and succinctly discussed in this essay.


Kellman’s essay,  “The Must-Read Recede”, examines another  idea I discussed in my talk last week: how reading the canon has been “sold” as a way for those without a college degree to become “middle class”—from Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, to the Book of the Month Club to Mortimer Adler’s Great Books—all were appeals to the American need to continuous self improvement.  While he doesn’t mention Oprah’s Book Club (or the Book of the Month Club, actually) both aspire(d) to the same goal, just from a less lofty platform: Preaching the Gospel of Reading!


Fleming’s article, “The Elite Conceit”, beautifully dovetails with what I was trying to do in the Oprah talk—remind my colleagues why they went into literary studies to begin with and that when we deny students the opportunity to respond personally and passionately to the literary works, we are denying them the opportunity to fall in love, as we did. Fleming argues that literature professors are “killing that experience with the discipline of literary studies”: by focusing on theoretical approaches before personal connection to the literature, we’ve “made ourselves into a priestly caste.” Indirectly, he argues against survey classes in a singularly humorous line: “nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who’ve just touched down on Earth.”  [I must admit to actually having a final exam question to that affect.] His argument is beautifully illustrated in a Richard Russo’s short story “The Horseman” (from The Atlantic Monthly’s August 2006 issue)—just read it since my summary would not do it justice.


Finally, Michael Bérubé’s  wonderfully caustic (and just laugh-out-loud funny, in a dark humor sort of way) Chronicle article, “Defending Literary Studies Has Become a Lost Cause” [link is only available to subscribers], responds to Kermode’s Atlantic Monthly review of  John M. Ellis’  book, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities:  


“ I think it’s about time we admitted that things in the academy are much, much worse than either Ellis or Kermode surmises. Over 70 per cent of women’s studies courses, for example, require their students to drink menstrual blood and engage in ritual witchcraft (in that order).”


Ah, brings back such memories of Intro to Women Studies, circa 1981.


Ending on a more serious note, Bérubé urges the current generation of literary critics (1997—oooh, me), to “refresh our culture’s collective memory as to why literature and criticism should matter to human affairs.”   


Ah, Bartleby.

Fall Term Reflections

Well, writing instructors often make their students write self reflections at the end of the term (Such as,  How many hours did you spend on this class each week? Which of the course outcomes do you think you’ve best met and why?; and, the one they all, rightfully,  groan at, If you were to revise this essay once more, what would you change and why?), so I should be forced to do the same.  Keeping in mind the Sunday night blues, I’ll focus on the strengths/positives of the term:

  • The analysis of a cultural trend assignment was a great success: I actually enjoyed reading those student essays this term.  I can see ways of revising the assignment for clarity and to prevent some wrong turns, but overall, I think it works. 
  • Spending more time having students practice using sources in conversation with each other before doing their researched essays definitely paid off for most students.  I need to develop these brief exercises more, but I was very pleased with the outcome.
  • The Food Fiction  class final projects are a pleasure to read. Students reported on their work during the final where we also ate food that everyone brought to class, food that reflected the work they chose to write about (for the most part: (fried) green tomatoes are not in season in December).  Most students chose the “Cliff Notes/Spark Notes” option where they create a booklet that gives an overview of the novel (analysis of the elements, including pictures of the setting, historical overview, etc); they select two published critical reviews to include in the booklet, after which they compare and respond to them.  One student created what looks like an old cookbook, burnt a bit from a fire, in her Cliff/Sparksnotes on Like Water For Chocolate
  • Although I spent endless hours in preparation, the Oprah’s Book Club speech went well, I thought.  I’m not used to speaking in front of 90 plus people, but really my palms were not too sweaty (though I’m sure my hands were shaking). At the gym this morning I saw one of the community leaders who attended at the presentation and he not only remembered me (it’s not like I look the same at the gym as I do all dressed up to present) but his comments reflected a real engagement with my talk.  A success, I think.

Preaching the Gospel of Reading

Evan Agostini / Getty Images file
Evan Agostini / Getty Images file

I just finished doing a run through of my presentation on Oprah’s Book Club that I’ve titled “Preaching the Gospel of Reading” (not exactly an original title considering all the essays on OBC that use variations on that title), practicing for the Wednesday morning presentation.  I finally found a clear, and I hope, engaging focus, connecting my interest in Oprah’s Book Club with the question of Why Literature STILL Matters.  And while my significant other, who patiently listened to me practice, praised my delivery and gave me only a few excellent suggestions at tightening up some sections, I’m sure he is a little biased.  I’m nervous as hell: why is it that the thought of speaking to my colleagues (and remember it’s early in the morning, so my very under-caffeinated colleagues) makes me sweat tears?

Anyway, I need another day to focus on my presentation (and, at the same time, somehow grade final research papers) but I’m looking forward to distilling some of those ideas here for feedback. 
In the meantime, I’ve gotten several requests from students in my literature class (Books That Cook!) this term for reading lists so that they can continue reading fiction over winter break. First, let me say how much that pleases me, but second, I just love such requests. I’ve been mulling over what sort of list to create for this particular class: one that continues with the theme of food fiction and women writers, but also takes them further.   Don’t worry: I’ll be posting that list here, too, someday soon.