A happy reader’s case against big lit­er­a­ture fac­ul­ties

The Washington Times Daily - - Life - BY JEREMY LOTT

It’s not that Johnny can’t read. It’s just that he doesn’t want to — at least not any more than nec­es­sary. And is that such a crime? Such, in essence, is the provoca­tive the­sis with which Alan Ja­cobs scan­dal­ized the Amer­i­can academy in July when he pub­lished an ar­ti­cle ti­tled “We Can’t Teach Stu­dents to Love Read­ing” in the aca­demic trade jour­nal the Chron­i­cle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion.

Near univer­sal lit­er­acy is one thing, se­ri­ous read­ing quite an­other, ar­gued Mr. Ja­cobs, a pro­fes­sor of English at Wheaton Col­lege, a small Chris­tian lib­eral arts in­sti­tu­tion in Illi­nois. We ought to in­vest re­sources in teach­ing lit­er­acy and let read­ing more or less take care of it­self.

“While vir­tu­ally any­one who wants to do so can train his or her brain to the habits of long-form read­ing, in any given cul­ture, few peo­ple will want to,” he as­serted. This ob­vi­ous fact had been, he ex­plained, “ob­scured in the past half-cen­tury, es­pe­cially in the United States, by the dra­matic in­crease in the per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion at­tend­ing col­lege.” The dis­tor­tion was made worse by the ex­pan­sion of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture fac­ul­ties at uni­ver­si­ties, such as the one that cuts Mr. Ja­cobs’ pay­checks.

The post-world War II GI Bill cre­ated un­re­al­is­tic and ul­ti­mately un­sus­tain­able ex­pec­ta­tions, the Wheaton pro­fes­sor ar­gued. “From 1945 to 2000, or there­abouts, far more peo­ple than ever be­fore in hu­man his­tory were ex­pected to read, un­der­stand, ap­pre­ci­ate, and even en­joy books,” he wrote. The mass public tried se­ri­ous read­ing but ul­ti­mately, and rightly in Mr. Ja­cobs’ view, threw in the towel.

What we are see­ing now is, as he put it, “read­ing re­turn­ing to its for­mer so­cial base.” Those who want to read will, and those who don’t won’t bother to put in the ef­fort just to avoid the judg­ment of oth­ers. Se­ri­ous readers won’t wither away to noth­ing, but they will, for the fore­see­able fu­ture, be limited to a de­cided mi­nor­ity.

The es­say was sur­pris­ing for what it didn’t do. Un­like most en­tries in the Why Johnny Can’t Read genre, it re­fused to treat the shrink­ing of Amer­i­cans’ lit­er­ary am­bi­tions as a cri­sis. Rather than pro­pose

reme­dies for a nonex­is­tent prob­lem, Mr. Ja­cobs urged in­stead that uni­ver­si­ties face facts — col­leges in the U.S. are full of peo­ple who are not that into read­ing — and adapt by cut­ting the size of their lit­er­a­ture fac­ul­ties ac­cord­ingly.

For­mal ed­u­ca­tion, he wrote, “is and should be pri­mar­ily about in­tel­lec­tual nav­i­ga­tion, about . . . skim­ming well, and read­ing care­fully for in­for­ma­tion in or­der to up­load con­tent. Slow and pa­tient read­ing, by con­trast, prop­erly be­longs to our leisure hours.”

Scholar of comics Lee Kon­stanti­nou had a run at the es­say on­line in the Stan­ford Ar­cade.

“In an era where uni­ver­si­ties are seek­ing new ways to jus­tify slash­ing and burn­ing the hu­man­i­ties, Ja­cobs pro­vides fresh am­mu­ni­tion to ad­min­is­tra­tors,” he charged. “Why fund lit­er­a­ture de­part­ments if they, at best, have no ef­fect on lit­er­ary ap­pre­ci­a­tion or at worst ac­tively in­cul­cate shame and fear in po­ten­tial readers by mak­ing read­ing a pill?”

Mr. Kon­stanti­nou and many other crit­ics raised all sorts of method­olog­i­cal quib­bles with the es­say, but there seemed to be a gnaw­ing sense among pro­fes­sors that per­haps Mr. Ja­cobs was onto some­thing. On the sci­ence web­site Big Think, Austin Allen pref­aced his ob­jec­tions by ad­mit­ting, “[A]s a teacher at the very be­gin­ning of his ca­reer, I’m aware of the risk of sound­ing naive here — years from now I might be star­ing hol­low-eyed into a beer mug, whis­per­ing, ‘Ja­cobs was right.’ ”

This year, Mr. Ja­cobs fol­lowed his Chron­i­cle es­say with a book about what we ought to read in our leisure hours, “The Plea­sures of Read­ing in an Age of Dis­trac­tion” (Ox­ford Univer­sity Press). He proves no less con­trary this time than he did in his first thrust. Our pro­fes­sor says peo­ple are al­ways ask­ing him to com­pile a list for them of books that they sim­ply must read. “I never com­ply with these re­quests,” he writes.

He re­fuses to pro­vide a list be­cause his phi­los­o­phy of read­ing is an­ti­thet­i­cal to the more con­ven­tional “canon­i­cal” ap­proach. Canon­ists say you should read a pre­de­ter­mined core of books that will make you a more his­tor­i­cally con­scious, vir­tu­ous, well­rounded per­son. He says nuts to that: Give him Shake­speare, Stephen King, G.K. Ch­ester­ton and an Or­son Scott Card pa­per­back.

Mr. Ja­cobs coun­ters the canon­i­cal ap­proach with his “com­mit­ment to one dom­i­nant, over­ar­ch­ing, nearly de­fin­i­tive prin­ci­ple for read­ing” — the de­scrip­tion of which alone would have driven Ayn Rand around the bend: “Read at Whim.” Read be­cause it brings you “plea­sure and joy,” not be­cause it brings you in­tel­li­gence, moral cer­ti­tude or in­creased so­cial stand­ing.

“The Plea­sures of Read­ing” has vil­lains, thank good­ness, who help keep things in­ter­est­ing. Mr. Ja­cobs, a C.S. Lewis bi­og­ra­pher, bor­rows Lewis’ de­scrip­tion of a cer­tain type of critic as “the vig­i­lant school.” These are crit­ics who “con­vince oth­ers that they are the proper guardians of read­ing and the proper judges of what kind of read­ing counts.”

Mr. Ja­cobs counts the late great­books evan­ge­list Mor­timer Adler among the vig­i­lant but at least has the oc­ca­sional kind word to say about the man who put the clas­sics in mil­lions of Amer­i­can homes. Af­ter all, what Adler meant for bet­ter­ment some might ex­pe­ri­ence as joy.

Harold Bloom doesn’t get off so easy. The renowned Yale Shake­spearean comes in for ex­tended crit­i­cism for his pom­pos­ity and cen­so­ri­ous­ness. His book “How to Read and Why” re­ally ought to have been ti­tled “What to Read and What to Think About It,” Mr. Ja­cobs quips, for “the ad­vice of the book as a whole is sim­ply ‘Do as I say and do as I do.’ “And though Mr. Bloom may not “have his own ver­sion of the Catholic Church’s In­dex on Pro­hib­ited Books, he can cer­tainly sound like he does,” Mr. Ja­cobs jabs.

Mr. Bloom, for ex­am­ple, took the pop­u­lar­ity of J.K. Rowl­ing’s Harry Pot­ter nov­els to be a de­fin­i­tive “in­dict­ment of the world’s de­scent into sub­lit­er­acy.” He said on the “New­sHour With Jim Lehrer” that readers of Harry Pot­ter nov­els are “not re­ally [read­ing]. Their eyes are pass­ing over a page. They are turn­ing the page. Their minds are be­ing numbed by cliche. No de­mands are be­ing made upon them. Noth­ing . . . noth­ing is hap­pen­ing to them.”

This sort of crit­i­cism from the vig­i­lant school can have one of two ef­fects upon readers, Mr. Ja­cobs ar­gues. It can af­firm them in their own su­pe­rior virtue be­cause they have had the good taste to pass over such un­wor­thy books. Or it can “ter­rify them” — and you can guess how that is likely to af­fect their long-term read­ing habits.

It’s in­struc­tive to con­trast the tone of Mr. Ja­cobs’ orig­i­nal es­say with the book it in­spired. In the book, the provo­ca­teur of the es­say be­comes much more boos­t­er­ish, un­de­terred from cham­pi­oning the cause, how­ever quixotic, of se­ri­ous read­ing with sur­pris­ing sug­ges­tions, such as his en­dorse­ment of e-readers as a way to help re­wire our eas­ily dis­tracted brains back to­ward habits of sus­tained at­ten­tive­ness.

Mr. Ja­cobs still holds to the idea that se­ri­ous readers will be in the mi­nor­ity for a long time to come, likely for­ever, but even so, he closes his book, hope­fully, with a wish: “May our tribe in­crease.” Here’s hop­ing his un­ortho­dox ad­vice for read­ing con­trib­utes to that in­crease.


Alan Ja­cobs, an English pro­fes­sor at Wheaton Col­lege in Illi­nois, says it’s not a cri­sis that most peo­ple read only as nec­es­sary and adds that “must read” lists by crit­ics such as Harold Bloom are non­sense. “Read at Whim”

is his phi­los­o­phy


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