Plato is smarter than you. That’s how an experienced teacher once began a series of lectures on the Greek philosopher. And a good beginning it was, for it put students on notice that, as they read, their first duty was to attend and learn. Plato didn’t have the final word—there would be Aristotle, Epicurus, and others—but no one could enter that ancient conversation without conning the books.
Same with us, only we have a problem: Compared even with people half-a-generation back, we lack the necessary time and patience. We read plenty, but it’s mostly skimming online news and compressed Twitter or Facebook messages. What’s needed, David Mikics argues, is a return to the close-reading practices inculcated by teachers whose influence might be said to have peaked in the 1950s and declined in the late ’60s, with the shift to a politicized pedagogy. That shift changed the game, and many English departments now prefer the label “cultural studies,” not least because it allows them to jettison traditional poems and stories for the sake of TV, hip-hop, fashion ads, graphic novels, and comic books—whatever facilitates (as in “makes facile”) sloganizing about gender, race, and class.
Plato isn’t the smartest anymore. That title has passed to the trendy professor hectoring from the lectern or bloviating on his blog. Which goes a long way toward explaining why the English major, once the flagship of the humanities in our colleges, may soon be of interest only to archaeologists. In 1971, 7.6 percent of undergraduates majored in English; today it’s 3.1 percent.
One reaction is to rejoice, for the reading and writing of literature can now go back to where it thrived, before the advent of criticism as an academic discipline in the 1920s and ’30s. Till then, English departments, if they existed at all, innocently taught philology and hard-fact literary history. Inspired by the dazzling analyses of I. A. Richards and William Empson, not to mention the smartly diverging discriminations of writer-critics like T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence, professors like F. R. Leavis, Yvor Winters, and Lionel Trilling made “English” the go-to place for many of the best undergraduate minds. But that, even for today’s middle-aged teachers, was almost inconceivably long ago.
For all of us, but especially for Generation X and Y sorts, a sustained and quiet read is harder to get than ever. The nagging, omnipresent digital media have produced a version of the Attention Deficit Disorder that psychologists began identifying in children decades ago: Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). A former Apple employee, Linda Stone, coined the term in 1998, differentiating it from multitasking, or the pairing of a “fairly automatic” activity, such as eating lunch, with one requiring concentration, such as making a phone call. CPA results from “a desire not to miss anything,” to be plugged into sources keeping us “in the know” and, artificially, at high alert. Between smartphone, laptop, e-reader, Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube, says novelist Walter Kirn, we’re like the “stiff-backed lady operators” in old movies, “rapidly swapping phone jacks from hole to hole as they connect Chicago to Miami, reporter to city desk, businessman to mistress.”
As the slow-food movement has tried to refine our fast-food habits, so (Mikics believes) a slow-reading movement might correct CPA’s neurotic mix of “over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment.” He would have us concentrate on one book at a time, and with the web’s ever-exploding “library” blacked out. The blackout can be achieved, I was delighted to learn, through something called the Freedom app, which allows one at the keyboard to focus on his or her word processor, and nothing else—the digital equivalent, Mikics suggests, to maintaining celibacy at an orgy.
Mikics locates the origin of word-by-word analysis at Harvard, where, in the 1950s, Reuben Brower taught a humanities course that spawned a large number of future English professors. Through the work of Trilling at Columbia, complementing Leavis at Cambridge—the moral imagination joined with the rigors of close reading—criticism became a formidable subject indeed. Rather than offering what Brower pooh-poohed as “the old-time appreciation course in which the teacher mounted the platform and sang a rhapsody which he alone was capable of understanding and which the student memorized,” the postwar cohort of literature teachers presented the text as an aesthetic and ethical nut to crack.