Paradox of the Book

Paradox of the Book

A better strategy is followed by Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer (2006). She reprints long extracts from fiction that illustrate most of Mikics’s common-sense principles (“Identify the Voice,” “Notice Beginnings and Endings”) and that get us far enough into the works to make us feel we’re truly reading them. The motivation to finish the job is strong. But the best strategy, surely, was pursued by classic textbooks, such as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry or Trilling’s The Experience of Literature, which present full texts and thorough—often up to half-a-dozen-page—critiques, the utility of which, shown time and again in midcentury classrooms, was to enable students to proceed to “do things with texts” quite on their own, thanks.

This is precisely what we should want. The groves of academe are now a brownfield, and it will take a generation, maybe more, for them to grow green again. It’s happened before. In the 1930s, literature departments, following the lead of intellectuals at the New Republic, Partisan Review, and elsewhere who were looking for total solutions to massive political and economic problems, went all-in for Marxism. It took the cogent counter-revolutionary exertions of those aforementioned close readers, joined by the moral-imagination luminaries at Columbia and Cambridge, to restore a measure of sanity—not to say intellectual honesty. 

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