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Literature Professors Should Teach Literature

In The American Scholar, Mark Edmundson makes the modest proposal that professors of literature should teach literature:

Word is out on the street: the study of literature is dying; English is breathing its last; no more Beowulf, no more Virginia Woolf either. Or not much of it. There are reasons to listen to the auguries. Most of the teaching in English departments now is done by adjuncts. The number of majors is tumbling. The profession’s on fire, and the deans, provosts, and presidents don’t hear the cries or smell the smoke . . . Let’s say it’s as bad as the darkest auguries would have us think. Is there, truly, anything that can be done? I think so, though it seems possible that it’s too late and the problems have progressed too far. But there might be something, something, something.

Literature departments should be about literature. There. I’ve said it. My radical response to the current crisis is out and on the table. It won’t solve the problem tomorrow or even the day after. But in time, making English departments about literature—about novels, poems, plays, and the rest—could begin to deliver them from their impending dissolution.

In other news: Jean-Paul Enthoven forgave his son, Raphaël, for stealing his girlfriend (Carla Bruni), but he won’t forgive him for his recently published autobiographical novel, Le Temps gagné: “‘I don’t like people’s private lives to be unpacked like this in public … why should I and my loved ones be subjected to this treatment based on prying eyes and denigration. Does someone have the right to tear off the masks that each of us may have needed during our lives without our consent and for their own pleasure,’ Enthoven senior told Le Figaro. ‘As Camus, who my son is so fond of quoting, said: “A man should restrain himself”.’”

In Granta, Barclay Bram writes about the connection between food and memory in a survey of haute (and not so haute) cuisine in China: “Picture an azure sky above me, a boy of seven, blonde hair tousling in summer breeze, standing in the midst of bushels in a pick-your-own strawberry farm in Normandy. In my hand is a strawberry I have just picked. It is a juicy red and, maybe, I have squeezed it too hard while picking it because there is juice curling around my thumb. It is a large strawberry that seems to fit my entire hand. It is the exact firmness of something that was only moments ago still living. Dimpled and top-hatted with green leaves. I bite and my mouth is filled with an indelible flavour: the perfect balance of sweetness with a slight tart aftertaste. It is the gateway berry, the one I will chase for the rest of my life – the flavour of my childhood. This is important to keep in mind, because for the past year, I had been living in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China’s South West. It is a city of 16 million people, known for its pandas. It is also one of the most famous culinary cities in China, a place synonymous with spicy food and bubbling hot pot. It is a city enthralled with the nostalgic flavours of the past. It was a city where I was constantly challenged to think about the flavours of my childhood. It wasn’t just that strawberries grew in winter; it was that everyone seemed to be able to draw to mind the flavours of their childhood so readily. My childhood’s flavour happened to be a Norman strawberry. It was a marker of my foreignness, a more subtle reminder than the obvious linguistic, cultural and physical differences that set me apart from my friends in the city.”

The University of Edinburgh renames the David Hume Tower: “The building, which will be used as a student study space this academic year, will now be known as 40 George Square. An online petition claiming David Hume ‘wrote racist epithets’ and calling for the building to be renamed has been signed more than 1,700 times. The university said Hume’s comments on race, ‘though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today.’”

Algorithms determine what you read online. That’s not a good thing, Russell Smith writes: “I would run into middle-aged people at functions and they would say, ‘I miss reading you in the Globe!’ and I would say, ‘I’m still there, weekly, in the arts section,’ and they would say, ‘Ah, I get it on my phone, and you don’t come up on the app.’ Out in Halifax, my mother couldn’t read me anymore after the Globe stopped offering a paper edition in the Atlantic provinces, in 2017. I taught graduate students in writing, and I had given up on expecting them to know I wrote for a national daily. They rarely seemed to read newspapers, and certainly not that one.”

Naomi Schaefer Riley reviews Jennifer Risher’s We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth: “Risher correctly diagnoses the discomfort that we may feel with hiring people to do things that we have been raised to think we should do ourselves. It can feel weird to sit up on a kind of throne and have people paint our toenails or shine our shoes. And she is right that there is a ‘challenge to navigating relationships’ that are neither purely business nor just personal, like with the people who care for our children. But there is something more fundamental at work here. Like many of our most successful businessmen (Michael Bloomberg comes to mind), Risher cannot muster a defense of the system that has brought her family such success. She wants us all to start talking about wealth but only in order to ‘take the power away from money.’ She worries that when rich people ‘stay quiet, we [are] allowing society to continue glorifying and demonizing wealth, which only perpetuates divides.’ This is absurd.”

What’s it like being a BookTuber? Daniel Greene explains: “The biggest challenge with YouTube is adapting to the site’s mysterious and ever-shifting algorithm. Greene is careful to balance less popular content with familiar standbys that he knows will bring in traffic. ‘I get 20-30 self-published authors reaching out to me a week, trying to get me to read their books,’ he says. ‘I would love to read their books, I would love to promote them to my audience, but if I did even a fraction of those, it would take up a huge percentage of my videos, and YouTube would see “OK, he had five videos this week, three of them were about these self-published books that barely got 10K views, we’re going to demote him.” And eventually I wouldn’t be able to do this job anymore.’”

Santa Fe board refuses George R.R. Martin’s request to build a medieval tower for his books: “It was not quite as dramatic as Daenerys mounting her last living dragon to destroy a rival kingdom. But this week the Santa Fe Historic Districts Review Board crushed a proposal by the Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin to construct a 24- to 26-foot, seven-sided tower with battered stucco walls on his property in the New Mexico city. The edifice, complete with an elevator and a roof deck, was designed to house Mr. Martin’s vast library. It was to be named the ‘Water Garden Keep.’”

Photos: Washington

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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