Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Books by a non-academic light

Often what's interesting about a newspaper article is how differently we think about things . . . I often read Peder Zane because he's thoughtful and his columns feature writers I know or have seen around the Triangle area of North Carolina. I've been away from UNC and colleges long enough to find that I don't consider things at all by the lights of an academic or a writer ensconced in the academy.

Peder Zane tells an anecdote meant to illustrate how students at our major universities seem to know nothing and be curious about nothing:

"Over dinner a few weeks ago, the novelist Lawrence Naumoff told a troubling story. He asked students in his introduction to creative writing course at UNC-Chapel Hill if they had read Jack Kerouac. Nobody raised a hand. Then he asked if anyone had ever heard of Jack Kerouac. More blank expressions.

"Naumoff began describing the legend of the literary wild man. One student offered that he had a teacher who was just as crazy. Naumoff asked the professor's name. The student said he didn't know. Naumoff then asked this oblivious scholar, 'Do you know my name?'

After a long pause, the young man replied, 'No.'"

"'I guess I've always known that many students are just taking my course to get a requirement out of the way,' Naumoff said. 'But it was disheartening to see that some couldn't even go to the trouble of finding out the name of the person teaching the course.'"

I deliberately left academia 18 years ago. Probably it was a poor decision in some ways--financially and in terms of the support system and built-in audience that colleges provide for writers.

As somebody who is no longer close to the academy and who does not live in a college town and just spins her own thoughts, I notice two things that the professors and writers and journalists at Peder Zane's dinner party did not. They appeared to stress the lack of curiosity in their students--about that, I can't say, since I've been away from the Tower for a long time, though I'm rearing three intensely curious children and thus doing my bit for college-bound curiosity. (As for a boy not knowing a teacher's name, where's the surprise? If it had been a girl, I might be worried.)

Here are my questions:

One: Should students be reading Kerouac at all? Has he lasted well, or is he a moribund old stoned-out fossil, as dated as Troll Doll rings? That's a serious question, one that I can't answer because I haven't felt the urge to pick up a book by Kerouac in some decades.

Two: Let's pretend it was Dickens and not Kerouac, because then the failure to read an important writer would be absolutely clear. If high school and college kids aren't reading 'Dickens,' why aren't they?

Well, that's clear, clear, clear to anybody who is not seated at a dinner party with professors.

When certain professors started lauding minor writers for reasons having nothing to do with books (say, because they were of a certain sex dear to The Department of Feminist Theory or of a certain race dear to The Department of Fill-in-the-Blank-American Studies or some other interesting reason irrelevant to the merit of a book), they tore away the bottom shelf of what used to be called "the canon" (and that was a more changeable entity than is commonly recognized in shrill argument) and let a lot of really good books tumble out.

What's the end result of such carelessness? If it doesn't matter who you read, why read 'Dickens'? To take the idea to its logical extreme, if it doesn't matter that some books are better than others, why read them at all?

2 comments:

  1. Hi, I just found your blog through a series of book blog links (I think it was Bookworld ->Kate's Book Blog -> The Palace), and I've enjoyed reading through your entries. I used to live in North Carolina, actually.

    Keep up the good work!

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  2. Michelle, I'm afraid that I often wish for the Carolinas, not being cut out for month after month after month of cold--particularly in January and February! But it's good for my writing because I stay in and scribble by the fire...

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.