Sunday, 18 August 2019

Big Reads and Eng Lit

Reviewing the newspapers on Radio 4 this morning, the guests were talking about the latest report of the ongoing boom in audiobooks, book downloads, podcasts etc – which they regarded as a good thing, while hoping that people also continued to get their 'big reads' from physical books. Radio 4, as it happens, has another of its epic dramatisations of a very big read coming up – Proust's great novel sequence read and dramatised across the three days of the August bank holiday weekend, a total of ten hours' radio in nine episodes. These ventures usually work rather well – Ulysses and War and Peace certainly did, I'd say from what I heard of them – and I hope Proust will too (though I have my doubts about Derek Jacobi as Marcel – maybe that's just me)...
  As part of this discussion, Dame Joan Bakewell (who smiled very nicely at me when we passed in a corridor at the House of Lords) lamented the fact that fewer and fewer students are taking English A level or studying English at university. This seemed to her extremely sad. However, given the state of Eng Lit studies these days, I'd say it's by and large a good thing and those students are choosing wisely.
 In the course of my working life, I came across many English graduates who had emerged from university having studied only a thin sliver of the literature, having read little or nothing not on the syllabus, and having no desire to read anything more except the latest talked-about middlebrow fiction. And yet they were convinced they knew their subject – they had the piece of paper to prove it. By contrast, many of the most widely read, curious and open-minded people I came across were those who had avoided university. With English and the other Humanities increasingly in the grip of a deadening ideology of anti-racism, anti-imperialism, anti-sexism, anti-DWEMism and the rest, they are surely destined to wither on the vine unless things change drastically. The fall in numbers of A-level students and university applicants is very likely a sign that the process is already under way.
 Meanwhile young people with a love of reading and a curiosity about the whole range of literature would be well advised to stay away from university and Read, Read, Read – that is how to study literature. And it's never been easier to do, thanks to the internet, the wide availability of cheap (or free) books, and, yes, all those audiobooks and podcasts.


  1. Well, I am a retired mining engineer and now I can read or reread!

  2. There is something staggering in the notion of "dramatizing" Proust. I don't know what effect his prose might have in French, but as translated he seems to have written to be read rather than heard.

  3. When I was a graduate student at York University in 1969 I attended a series of lectures on Eliot’s Four Quartets by F.R. Leavis. His audience consisted of young academics, who, though I didn’t realise it at the time, were the advance guard of the theorists who have since overrun English departments in the UK and North America. They didn’t shout him down, brandishing their copies of Derrida, Foucault and Paul de Man; on the contrary they were polite, deferential and, possibly, rather bored. In hindsight that juxtaposition seems richly symbolic: on the podium a high-minded late Victorian who was offering nothing more than a series of strenuous assertions, and in the audience a bunch of baby boomers who had been seduced by third-rate continental philosophy. Leavis, for all his faults, really cared about what he read; the baby boomers were only interested in what they read insofar as it confirmed their theories. Many of them, I suspect, didn’t really care for books at all. Since those days I have frequently asked myself what, if anything, is at the heart of English studies. Not much, I suspect. Textual scholarship, certainly, a sense of historical context, certainly, a broad historical overview, certainly, but not much else. What you’re left with, as you suggest in your post, is a lot of people who can make post-colonial and feminist noises about novels on the Booker long list and aspire to a job in the woke BBC.

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