The Chronicle Review

When Dickens Is a Distraction

October 25, 2015

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle Review

A recent issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine offers a promising feature: "Guilty (and not-so-guilty) reads of the Yale faculty: What your professors read when nobody’s watching." It’s a potentially juicy idea that yielded disappointingly tepid results.

The editors of the magazine admit, "The first thing we learned when we asked faculty across the campus to share their guilty reads: Not all Yale professors know how to relax. Their summer reading lists included the likes of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin — a groundbreaking work by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, but not exactly escapist. Other books sounded suspiciously like fodder for future papers."

As I leafed through the article, I found myself mentally awarding points to any prof whose supposed "guilty reads" were in fact even remotely embarrassing or guilt-inducing.

It’s no surprise that detective fiction — long the acceptable light reading of the professoriate — often turns up in the responses. Robert Stern, dean and architecture professor, recommends Georges Simenon’s Maigret thrillers and Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series, documenting the Peculiar Crimes detective unit in London; Sidney Altman (biology and chemistry) likes mysteries by Philip Kerr and Andrea Camilleri; Diana E.E. Kleiner (art history and classics) suggests Diane Mott Davidson’s culinary mysteries about "a spunky heroine named Goldy Bear."

OK, the Goldy Bear whodunit does sound a little silly. But if a taste for detective fiction was possibly, once upon a time, considered mildly outré in Ivy League faculty clubs, it’s been more than 70 years since Edmund Wilson declared (in his 1944 "Why Do People Read Detective Stories?") that he was "always being reminded that the most serious public figures of our time, from Woodrow Wilson to W.B. Yeats, have been addicts of this form of fiction." Detective fiction has long been a safe harbor for professors who wish to show they can unwind without risking any true status demerit.

Satirical "campus novels" about university life are another safe genre — what profession does not love reading about itself, after all? They too show up here; Heather K. Gerken of the law school declares, "This summer’s guilty pleasure will be rereading David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy." As with the mysteries, there’s not much real "guilt" in these erudite, amusing novels by a longtime English professor.

We are now entering a new golden age of literature's academic marginalization.
A few brave respondents do venture into at least marginally disreputable genres. The dean of Yale College, Jonathan Holloway, mentions A.J. Jacobs’s Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. Something of a self-help book, albeit a brainily ambitious one: We’ll grant a half-point to the dean. Paul Bloom (psychology and cognitive science) recommends Jonathan Gottschall’s The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch, describing it as "a thoughtful and scholarly exploration of male violence" but also "the story of how an out-of-shape English professor takes up mixed martial arts and becomes a cage fighter." One minus for "thoughtful and scholarly," but we’ll give him two for "martial arts" and "cage fighter" and call it a plus one. Anna Reisman, of the school of medicine, mentions the audiobook of Stephen King’s novel Mr. Mercedes: King is practically canonical by now, but Reisman gets bumped up a point for not actually reading written words on a page.

The winner by a long shot, however, is Laurie Santos (psychology), who winningly confesses, "My guilty pleasure summer reading always includes cheesy celebrity memoirs. This summer I’m looking forward to reading the new book by the actress and Internet star Felicia Day, called You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost). Day is kind of a celebrity idol for geeky girls, so I’m looking forward to learning more about her take on pretty much everything. Some others I liked were Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, Joey Kramer’s (the drummer for Aerosmith) Hit Hard: A Story of Hitting Rock Bottom at the Top, and Tommy Lee’s Tommyland."

Not one but two heavy-metal-band-drummer memoirs about "hitting rock bottom": the Guilty Pleasure trophy goes to Professor Santos in a walk.

These exceptions aside, however, the books suggested constitute a risibly highbrow collection. Let’s bracket the various weighty nonfiction tomes ("the story of water from Rome’s aqueducts to modern-day battles over whether water should be managed as a priced commodity") and focus on the novels. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? Admittedly, it’s sometimes considered a YA book, but it was nearly universally praised, and won the UK’s Whitbread Award for Book of the Year. Haruki Murakami novels? Alice Munro? Marilynne Robinson’s Lila? Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers? The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel?? "Two wonderful new translations of Anna Karenina"?!? How can these possibly be "guilty reads"? What is going on here?

My first thought was: Yale professors are a bunch of humorless show-offs.

This surely can’t be true, however. And to be fair, a few of the respondents explicitly rejected the "guilty pleasure" concept, and simply explained what they’d been reading for pleasure. But a disturbing implication seems inescapable: For these various members of one of the country’s finest university faculties, literature itself — even the work of Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Isaac Babel, Charles Dickens, and Leo freaking Tolstoy — has become a "guilty pleasure" so divorced from utility, labor, scholarship, and the other serious components of life as to become faintly embarrassing for a serious person to admit to enjoying.

As Gerald Graff explains in Professing Literature: an Institutional History, until the later decades of the 19th century, "the idea that literature could or should be taught — rather than simply enjoyed or absorbed as part of the normal upbringing of gentlefolk — was a novel one. … There seems to have been a tacit assumption in the colleges that the meanings of literature were self-explanatory and thus in need of no elaborate explication."

And prose fiction, in particular, was viewed for much of its history not as something to take very seriously or to study, but simply as a form of popular entertainment. In these days of shrinking enrollments in humanities classes and vanishing state support for the study of anything that doesn’t appear sufficiently data-driven and practical, is it possible that we have begun to cycle back to something like this way of thinking about literature? That it — even Dickens and Tolstoy — is merely a fun distraction from anything truly important?

If this is true, perhaps those of us who consider the writing of authors like Dickens, Babel, Tolstoy — and Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, and Stephen King too — to be as worthy of serious attention and study as chemistry, biology, architecture, psychology, or medicine can take a measure of perverse comfort. Surely imaginative literature also lost something when it gained, in the 20th century, an altogether reputable position in the academy, becoming fodder for SAT and AP questions, A-levels, and professional advancement. Perhaps we are now entering a new golden age of literature’s academic marginalization.

In 1778, the English clergyman and boys’ school headmaster Vicesimus Knox warned that novels "often pollute the heart in the recesses of the closet, inflame the passions … and teach all the malignity of vice in solitude." If literature once again becomes a scandalous "guilty pleasure" to "read when nobody’s watching," perhaps it can regain some of the power it possessed in those days when it was considered trashy fun at best, a solitary vice at worst — the power to astonish and arouse, to titillate and enchant.

Ivan Kreilkamp is an associate professor of English at Indiana University at Bloomington and co-editor of the journal Victorian Studies.