I have a fan or two, says Felipe Fernán­dez-Armesto, but the academy needs many more

Felipe Fernán­dez-Armesto re­flects on why so few aca­demics gain any sort of celebrity af­ter a chance en­counter with a fan

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Felipe Fernán­dez-Armesto is Wil­liam P. Reynolds pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Univer­sity of Notre Dame.

It hap­pened once be­fore: on the Bak­er­loo Line. The train was strap-hang­ingly crowded and there was barely room to breathe, but the young man next to me man­aged to turn the pages of his pa­per­back with one hand, while “hold­ing tightly”, in obe­di­ence to the driver’s pleas, with the other.

Against my bet­ter judge­ment, the en­forced in­ti­macy of the set­ting made me ask him what he thought of the book. He looked at me search­ingly and turned to the back cover. My photo be­smirched the bind­ing and, amaz­ingly, un­der the blur, I was recog­nis­able as the au­thor.

My in­ter­locu­tor, who ra­di­ated in­tel­li­gence through gleam­ing spec­ta­cles, was Ger­man and seemed to know em­bar­rass­ingly more about the book than I. Arnold Ben­nett, who was a gen­uinely pop­u­lar writer, is said to have car­ried £100 in his pocket with the in­ten­tion of pre­sent­ing the sum to any­one he found read­ing one of his nov­els: the money stayed with him un­til the day he died. So the chances of an­other such en­counter for me seemed com­fort­ingly re­mote.

Yet it hap­pened again the other day, as I re­turned home to the Univer­sity of Notre Dame from dis­tant Dal­las. Our team was play­ing foot­ball at home – an event that draws scores of thou­sands of en­thu­si­asts to our cam­pus; so the plane was packed. The cheery fan who squeezed into the seat next to me chat­ted with the ca­ma­raderie that comes nat­u­rally to fel­low-trav­ellers in the kind of tiny, rau­cous-en­gined bone-rat­tler that air­lines seem to re­serve for such oc­ca­sions. He told me how he had been a fan of Notre Dame foot­ball for 45 years – ever since, as an al­tar boy, he lis­tened to the ra­dio to find out whether Catholics’ favourite squad had beaten the WASPS at their own game. Never be­fore, how­ever, had he seen a game or vis­ited the cam­pus. His boy­ish ex­cite­ment was in­fec­tious. He was a Texan whose in­ter­est in Mex­i­can seep­age across the bor­der de­ter­mined his in-flight read­ing.

“Do you know the Notre Dame pro­fes­sor who wrote this?” he asked, bran­dish­ing a ti­tle ( Our Amer­ica) all too fa­mil­iar to me.

“Not very well,” I replied – for how many of us re­ally know our­selves? Af­ter a brief in­ter­ro­ga­tion had elicited the truth, I be­came, for the first and, I sus­pect, only time in my life, a part of some­one’s selfie.

I feel a bit like the lady who, hav­ing won mil­lions in the Texas state lot­tery, re­peated the ex­pe­ri­ence three years later, only to win a third help­ing of mil­lions more a few years af­ter­wards. Co­in­ci­dence can’t hap­pen that of­ten, can it? I’m sure I’ll never meet an­other bookin-hand reader.

I sup­pose there was a time when Hugh Trevor-Roper or A. J. P. Tay­lor or Les­lie Rowse might find a reader in a train or plane, but most of to­day’s pop­u­lar his­to­ri­ans rely on broad­cast­ing, not books, to con­nect with the pub­lic.

Oth­ers op­er­ate out­side his­tory de­part­ments: think of Jared Di­a­mond or the much lamented John Julius Nor­wich. There are still sci­en­tists with wide read­er­ships, al­though many of them rely heav­ily on ghost-writ­ers to con­nect with the pub­lic. Univer­sity-based pro­duc­ers of vul­gar sen­sa­tion­al­ism, “how-to” nos­trums or vo­ca­tional man­u­als ex­ist (al­though they do not count as com­mu­ni­ca­tors of hu­mane learn­ing). In the Euro­pean Union, high-minded aca­demics are still some­times cel­e­brated as pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als: that, no doubt, is one of the dis­taste­ful fea­tures of con­ti­nen­tal life that makes Brex­i­teers re­coil. Pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als be­gin at Calais.

Most of my books, like most aca­demics’, are never go­ing to earn the cost of print­ing the bleak, blank roy­alty state­ment. I do not re­pine, be­cause my only tar­get au­di­ence is my­self: at least I’m guar­an­teed a crit­i­cal read­er­ship. And if I can en­hance my own un­der­stand­ing of a sub­ject, I’ve achieved enough to jus­tify the time spent writ­ing.

If I get no other read­ers, the loss to the world is slight.

Nev­er­the­less, I worry about the chasm that gapes, with in­creas­ingly wide-mouthed baf­fle­ment, be­tween pro­fes­so­rate and pop­u­lace: the only jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the ex­is­tence of a well-re­mu­ner­ated leisure class is the pub­lic ben­e­fit of widely shared eru­di­tion. If we have some­thing worth say­ing, it should reach ev­ery­one who might be in­ter­ested. Aca­demics who hide their work be­hind hi­ero­phan­tic lan­guage, es­o­teric ob­sta­cles, ar­cane codes and other hos­tile fire­walls are guilty of trahi­son des clercs.

All the usual sus­pects share the blame: aca­demic in­tro­spec­tion that fix­ates each con­trib­u­tor to the Jour­nal of Er­gonomic Hermeneu­tics or such­like on a hand­ful of fel­low-read­ers; in­dif­fer­ence to the econ­omy and euphony that make books ac­ces­si­ble; the way the in­ter­net di­vides the world into cy­ber-ghet­toes of the like-minded, who have no in­ter­est in breadth of mind or di­ver­sity of opin­ion; the cult of the spe­cial­ist, which con­demns re­searchers to dig ever deeper fur­rows in ever drier soils un­til they are buried un­der their own arid­ity.

I worry, how­ever, less about the causes than the consequences of the iso­la­tion of aca­demics in tra­di­tional dis­ci­plines. The world still takes an in­ter­est in pro­fes­sors who be­long in vo­ca­tional train­ing or in sup­pos­edly use­ful “think­tanks”. But work­ers in hu­mane sub­jects or sci­en­tific ar­cana or what used to be called higher learn­ing have ever fewer read­ers and ever less to say to them. We should not be sur­prised at the next phases: af­ter run­ning out of read­ers, we may run out of stu­dents, prospects and funds.

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