E. John Winner


This essay is a response generally to an article Dan Kaufman posted here at EA [https://theelectricagora.com/2021/10/14/some-cranky-thoughts-on-philosophers/], and in some ways also to some implications embedded in comments on that article by Robert Gressis, which extend the problems Dan noted beyond philosophy departments to include the whole of the Humanities and even the Social, or Human sciences. I can’t speak to the Human Sciences, because their core missions seem to remain intact, despite the exhaustion and narrowing of their research and practices. But I think the Humanities have simply lost their way and probably without hope of recovery. My doctorate is actually in English, but what does that mean, to have a discipline called “English?” Is it the study of the language and its history? The study of the many uses of English over the centuries and especially literary texts? The study of the values English speaking peoples have expressed through their language? Perhaps, at a bare minimum, the study of the proper usage of the language, grammatically and in writing? When I first went to school we had answers to these questions, and the answers dovetailed into each other and supported each other. Now, not so much.

The knee-jerk response to this phenomenon is usually to blame one or another party for introducing ideological conflict into the discipline. But anyone aware of the many political quarrels in the discipline dating back to the initiation of contemporary language studies in the 17th Century knows that this cannot be the whole story. Another part certainly has to do with the development of mass media in the 19th Century and electronic media in the 20th. But television achieved media dominance in the 1960’s, at the same time as America realized its greatest expansion of sophisticated literacy, so that’s only part of the picture as well. Yet undeniably the arrival of the internet and similar technology has had an enormous negative impact on the study — even the public practices — of what we broadly call “English.” The internet is populated with people who have no interest in traditional literacy, and even the most conservative among them have no interest in the history of the language or the texts produced therein. At most, cultural savvy, which should be the basis of reflection and shared conversation, is used as a battering ram for opposing points of view on topics having nothing to do with the traditions manifest in the archives of the English language. We often debate the value of different archival texts and the dangers of revising them to supplicate short-term political interests, and this is certainly an argument worth having for those of us comfortable with these texts; but one worries, what is the point in a post-literate culture, where cultural references are really only used as cudgels, to be screamed about rather than discussed? How do we clear away the miasma of self-appointed “influencers,” untrained by anything other than their personal preferences and their preferred social or political bubble, in order to renew the conversations wherein we can civilly disagree, yet also learn and perhaps change our minds?

But let’s also be honest. The decision to establish publication as the standard measure of academic success has always been problematic. It puts an awful lot of pressure on individual scholars and teachers, but it also puts pressure on the discipline itself. Just how many essays on Wordworth’s Tintern Abbey did the world ever need? How many books about Jane Austen can we endure? And I love that poem, and I love Jane Austen, and I even find myself occasionally entertained by BBC documentaries on Austen that get posted on YouTube. But there you go: it is not just my age — the fact that I find it more and more difficult to commit myself to reading longer texts about texts — but the age itself, where questions concerning archival texts and their authors can be quickly and painlessly answered by a visit to a social media platform and a few views of videos, some professionally made, but others: “In My Basement channel: Jack Sprat reviews Pride and Prejudice; 39 views.”

So the academic text-mill had already said pretty much all it had to say about the archival texts, just within a couple decades before the development of a media that would make that text-mill socially superfluous. Of course the initial response was to expand the archive, broader and broader, until its boundaries simply disappeared. It was no longer the archive, it was simply whatever texts might cause a social buzz among English teachers and their students. But doesn’t that clearly fit well into contemporary web/”social media?” Of course a case should be made that the teachers could still instruct their students in English literacy, but one doesn’t need to be truly literate to navigate the web. And given how profoundly dependent good English usage is on writing, on print, the loss of literacy strips an expression like “good English usage” of any necessary reference. How about “good emoji usage’”? Or “proper trolling grammar”? “Self-expression thru sexting”?

So the study of English, as an academic discipline, effectively lost its core mission (partially dissolved, partially exhausted) just in time to enter a social environment populated for the most part by those who no longer had any interest in whatever that core mission had once been, and little interest in rebuilding a new core mission beyond the evident inertia of academic professionalism as a financed institution. (In other words, English departments exist simply because they have existed, and some people and agencies are willing to pay for their continued existence.) People fret over the political conflicts that still erupt in English departments, but can we not see that without these there would be nothing happening in them at all? Controversies excite interest and excitement produces texts; publications, which remain the standard by which professors are hired or receive tenure.

It is my suggestion that this situation obtains across the Humanities disciplines in the academy; in different ways in the somewhat more practical humanities of, say, art or music, but in very similar ways in the study of philosophy. Because of his rather journalistic prose, enriched with a kind of smug irony, I think a lot of people (among those who cared) didn’t really understand the broad picture of the history of philosophy that Richard Rorty was painting in his later career. Traditional philosophy (first playing follow-up to theology and then playing catch-up to science) had exhausted itself; the culture that had once valorized that philosophy was itself exhausted, replaced by a culture committed to self-definition through the reading of novels, poetry, and other literary texts; in which culture philosophy could only be recognized as itself simply another literary genre. It was itself an irony of history that Rorty began elaborating this narrative at precisely the time when the kind of literature Rorty held to be paradigmatic of contemporary culture was itself becoming outdated, by the now all pervasive connectivity of the internet.

But there is still much truth to learn from Rorty, especially in the loss of a core mission for the disciplined study of philosophy. For quite some time, it has been assumed that philosophy is a continuing, highly trained study into some perennial set of stupefying questions about the very nature of human life and the ontology involved in that; a set of questions initially set up by Plato and Aristotle, and then revised through the framework of theology. But eventually, theology was effectively undone during the Reformation and discarded as a source of practical wisdom or insight into humans and their ontology, so philosophy could really only continue as a kind of mulling over of ancient texts from the Mediterranean. But then, Modern thinkers began to create elaborate systems in response to the new world that was opening up through discoveries coming from the new sciences, and the texts they wrote began gathering into an archive — a canon of important texts that researchers in various fields needed to study, to accommodate, or, if in disagreement, to criticize and correct — or even attempt to replace, either through development of superior systems, or through effective deconstruction of the impulse to systematization itself. One can see the many, many discussions, debates, controversies and innovations this might initiate. But one can also see the inevitable limitations. Whatever could be said of a canonical text and its ideas would be said, after which speaking of it would prove simply repetitious, avoiding redundancy through inventive jargon. And eventually, the jargon itself would become the very object of the study and its debates and controversies. And eventually, whatever could be said about the jargon would itself be said. And so on. Meanwhile, the supposed “perennial” questions began to shimmer and blur like streetlights left on during a hot sunny day. Taught in the schools, these would be perceived as the core mission of philosophy, but as the study of the archive gave way to debates about the jargon, I think it would become obvious to many professional philosophers that the perennial questions really weren’t so interesting and perhaps had never been perennial to begin with.

Some might think that philosophy can survive the dissolution or exhaustion of much of its previously held core mission, by at least teaching the clarity of thinking and the proper formation of questions to think about, ‘”perennial” or not. But that move didn’t work for English, and it’s not working for philosophy, and much the same problems beset it in the age of the internet: the rise, for instance, of the amateur philosophers flooding the net with their assurances that difficult questions can be levelled with the easy adoption of principles advanced by some obscure book or website rant. And of course there’s the host of “philosophy made easy” sites and regurgitated essays-for-sale, similar to the Cliffs-Notes that took the place of actual study in English for students long ago. Except now there are no standards by which the use of such sites can be held accountable. Back in the day, a teacher could call out a student for plagiarism or for expounding bad ideas. Now plagiarism is hard to recognize — there’s so much of it — and criticism of bad ideas risks “triggering” a sensitive student.

Again, similar trends are sweeping across the Humanities spectrum. I suspect it somewhat different in the practical Humanities like art and music, because there are real jobs to be had outside of academia in these disciplines. After all, get a degree in music, and one could get a job in an orchestra — or one could skip school entirely and join a band, hire a good manager, work playing studio sessions – well, that’s part of the problem. There are trends and phenomena beyond the ivied walls of the academy that academics must play against, whether they like it or not. Speaking of music, think of all the “viral” music ‘stars’ that acquired their audiences (and their careers) thanks to YouTube. And if getting a job is really what the disciplined study of music comes down to — its “bottom line,” so to speak — then what was its core mission to begin with? This is what’s been lost.

The only Humanities discipline that still seems to hold onto a core mission, and it’s a study that many in it would prefer be considered a human science, is History. The reason for this is worth considering, if rather odd, because, it is so simple (and simplistic). However one approaches the study of the past and its artifacts, whatever perspective through which one wishes to interpret the past, in order to develop a credible narrative concerning it, one is committed to the study of history. In other words, the goal generates the motivation and determines the resources with which the practice must work, in a way unseen in other disciplines. One cannot study the Reformation by simply looking at Queen Elizabeth and recognizing she is the head of the Church of England. “Oh, now we understand Protestantism!” There’s no denying that such remarks can be found on the internet; but these are rather like beans spat at a tank. Those who really want a deeper understanding of Protestantism as a social phenomenon — or more generally, of the place of Christianity in the world today — will have to study the history of the Reformation and its lasting effects. And once committed to that, one is committed to the study of history whether one likes it or not. Otherwise, one might, as all too many do, simply forego any understanding of the world deeper than a Tweet or a post on Facebook. One can study history outside of the academy — and I wish more would — but one cannot study History in the academy without studying history. QED. Of course, there will be bad scholars, poor teachers, useless research publications, even repetitious research vaguely renewed through clever jargon. I fear this is all in the nature of the academy. And there will be ideologically driven narratives and controversies, that’s just in the nature of the world we live in currently. But the core mission of History just is the study of history, and that’s actually something one cannot say of English or Philosophy.

Which is why, some time ago, while weighing one of the endless conflicts between Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology (or as its often called, “Continental Philosophy”), I realized that both of these schools of thought were pretty much exhausted; that no news ideas were getting developed, but a whole host of old ideas were getting regurgitated in their inevitable (and predictable) permutations; that this very regurgitation suggested that no new ideas would be developing for some time to come (since the discipline was stuck in ‘rinse-repeat’ mode on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean); and that given this, the immediate future of Philosophy would actually be a renewed study of the History of Philosophy, a preservation through narratives of different perspectives in the human endeavor to find wisdom, which is really only a sense of security that “I know what I know.” And this study would not be elaborated through research based publication (for we surely saw enough “History of Philosophy” texts published in the 20th Century), and what does publication really amount to in web-based post-literate society anyway? No, the principle practice of this study would be teaching and shared conversation between those trained to it and those who really want to learn it.

Well, that would be my suggestion; but of course I’m no longer in the academy, so no one there is going to pay attention to it. That’s frustrating, not because I feel ignored (because, really, what do I care?), but because no such suggestion is going to change the awful inertia of the academy’s chosen processes of self-mutilation and enervated uselessness. When outsiders ask for the core missions of the Humanities, the usual responses are self-righteous bluster about the preservation of the values of Western Civilization; or equally self-righteous bluster about the need to transform society; or middle-of-the-road pap about literacy and clear thinking, citizenship and well-rounded personhood for students, blah blah blah. Hundreds of millions in financing (and student loans) to make students feel more comfortable attending the opera? Wiser in their selection of politicians? Healthier social relationships in their leisure hours? Of course not; the structure of most colleges and universities was determined long ago: they are research facilities — publication mills — not teaching institutions. University teaching was conceived as a kind of noblesse oblige gift to potential future colleagues. Most students figure that out by their junior year. In their first two years they try to decide what career they’d like, to be manifested in their major; by junior year, now caught in the net, they worry about what job they can get with their earned degree. Once they graduate, jobs are scarce and the joke’s not funny anymore. For many, it actually gets worse if they think they can salvage their personal and intellectual integrity by entering graduate school. For the lucky few, however, the graduate degree may get them a niche in the academy itself, where they can be profoundly bored with administrative nonsense; or profoundly boring if they cannot find new interests to pursue in their chosen discipline; or fascinated by some exciting controversy that also generates new jargon with which to achieve publication. Until they are at last ready to retire. And I have never met any of my former professors who, having retired, were sorry they did.

But that doesn’t mean that going to college is entirely a waste of time. College is a great place to get drunk and have sex. There’s also sport, and the fun of political activism. Musicians form rock bands, fratboys play Risk, and debates about celebrities or even about “perennial” questions can carry on ’till the early morning hours. And for students who really wish to learn, who wish exposure to new ideas and difficult to acquire facts and theories, there’s no better environment. Graduate school is even better for that. During my years earning the doctorate, I could spend all day in the library, reading texts from the archives, with which I would never have become familiar otherwise. And I actually did have a number of excellent teaching professors who would challenge me and demand greater clarity of thought, pushing and prodding me to developing skills in research, writing, and critical thinking. (I was also lucky, living on a stipend; I took my degree without any student loans, more than I can say for some friends of mine.) None of this should be laughed at or denigrated. There are worse wastes of one’s time than reading Aquinas or Hegel, Joyce or Laurence Sterne. One could join an obscure church or become hooked on a conspiracy theory, fretting away the hours worried about saving souls or nations; at the end of that day, people and world look pretty much the same as they ever have. I’d rather read a good book.

These days, I generally only read histories and mystery novels. The only “classic” literature I return to is Shakespeare, Austen, Whitman, Melville, and Twain. I just no longer find that the old voices sing to me the way they once did, and I attribute that to my age and to my jaded sensibilities. I still gnaw on Kant and Hegel, Dewey, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, on occasion; but I confess I no longer have the sense that I once had of discovering new worlds or new perspectives on the current world. To most philosophic questions that I once found puzzling, I have discovered answers that satisfy me, and of those that remain, I have given them up as probably unanswerable.

But I confess that my days attending college and university, while lying in a now-distant past, loaded with disappointments and failed expectations, remain the happiest and most fulfilling of my life and in some ways, the most meaningful. It is just in the nature of things that life, which begins as a run across an open field in sunlight, inevitably ends as a meditation by a still pool in a dark forest. The academy was once that open field, for me at least; now, by many reports it’s become a dark forest, and the still pool comes alive only with the breaking of swamp gas to the stagnant surface. If true, than we really have lost something from this culture; and it’s doubtful that we can ever get it back.

Often from a word or a surviving image I could recognize what the work had been.When I found, in time, other copies of those books, I studied them with love, as if destiny had left me this bequest, as if having identified the destroyed copy were a clear sign from heaven that said to me: Tolle et lege. At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books. The more I reread this list the more I am convinced it is the result of chance and contains no message. (…) stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.

–UmbertoEco, The Name of the Rose


48 responses to “Endgame”

  1. This essay was good.

    It has long seemed to me that the humanities were making a huge mistake basing their promotion and tenure decisions on research publications. That works for the sciences and maybe for history. But it does not work for most of the humanities, and it leads to an excessive emphasis on esoterica.

    In my opinion, the sciences also have problems. The use of research publications as a measure, while imperfect, works reasonably well. But these days the main measure used is being awarded external research grants. I see this as a huge mistake. The academy has sold its soul for 30 pieces of silver.

  2. The legitimate future of theoretical philosophy is Wittgensteinian conceptual clarification. As for the other inexhaustible tasks of good philosophers, I find Dr. Hacker’s view persuasive:


  3. I agree that’s what should happen, but it won’t.

  4. You’re likely right and I find that incredibly disappointing. When Wittgenstein realized he had come to a new method that constituted a “kink” in the development of Western philosophy as a discipline, he imagined that after him a whole generation of philosophers would busy themselves tackling all the questions amenable to that method. Some good work was produced in line with his influence, but that barely happened, if at all. No wonder his opinion of philosophers was so low. How could things be turned around?

  5. Hey E.J. Winner Uncle Toby here,
    Were you referring to my nephew Laurence Sterne or the little read Jewish writer Lawrence Stern? We all must cultivate our gardens and there is no better compost activator than hobby horse dung.

    The Indian universities are still reading the classics. My notes on essays by William Hazlitt, exquisite aperçus that they are, get daily hits from there. He’s on an M.A. course there. De Quincey too and Coleridge. The native anglophone literature studies have been overwhelmed by accessibility, relevance, and relatability.

    Here I am reading this cool autumn night ‘Bleak House’ . Dark, trenchant, unforgiving satire that spares no one but he’s a white man and was mean to his wife so skip that. Is there anything more to say about it? Yes, if you have studiously avoided the cliffs of the academy and dive in naked and naive.

  6. I fixed Sterne. Thanks for pointing it out.

  7. s. wallerstein

    Very interesting essay.

    Maybe I was especially duped and self-deluded as a young person, but I still find at age 75 that reading, reflection and conversation open new perspectives for me, opening my eyes to aspects of my self and the world I was blind to or willfully ignored when younger.

    I’m less optimistic than I was a young person that new perspectives are going to “save” me, that’s true, but that realization is part of the learning process.

  8. lcuddy12

    “… the structure of most colleges and universities was determined long ago: they are research facilities — publication mills — not teaching institutions.”

    Exactly. But therein lies a future where philosophy still has relevance, a refocus on teaching (since some early philosophers, including Socrates and Confucius, prided themselves on being teachers). I’ve long argued that the best part of philosophy is the beginning, not the end (where this author finds himself). The beginning meaning a developing sense of wonder, a growing respect for logical argumentation, an understanding of human biases and fallacies, etc.

    Helping to develop these things in one’s students can be valuable in itself, and each class can be a new canvas on which the professor can “paint.”

    Of course this does raise the incredibly complex question of what learning is, how it can be done well, etc. It also butts up against a culture that does not value teaching, both inside and outside of academia,, and professors who sprint from it and are even today rarely well prepared for it (as I argued here: https://medium.com/arc-digital/to-improve-college-publish-or-perish-should-perish-6b981e22c0f8).

  9. davidlduffy

    “a niche in the academy itself” – I, for one, am glad to be able to do the things I do, and get paid for them. I was reading a 1920s economist’s review of US universities suggesting that the salubrious working conditions (he didn’t mention going to work in sandals, that was a bit later), and contact with the enthusiastic young, meant that institutions should keep professorial salaries low ;).

    “stat rosa…”. Does it ruin things that we can now Google up the origin and translation? Does that recursively mean I am left just with the “naked names”? Apparently, Latin is again popular with the Harry Potter aged student, but my generation was glad it had been dropped from the school curriculum (as it was not when my father studied both Latin and Italian). Anyway, the fun thing with Eco is how he can write a structuralist bestseller.

  10. You work in the sciences, which EJ explicitly said he was *not* talking about.

  11. EJ, these are lovely, sometimes melancholy reflections on your experience and thoughts. That I disagree with things here and there is really irrelevant, as you are not offering any sort of argument. There is wisdom and a love of books and tragic beauty in this piece, and it reminds me — as if I could forget — why I am so lucky to have you.

  12. I too have lost patience/sympathy with much of the literature I used to find compelling and especially, for some reason, the Russians.

    Some of the authors that still resonate:

    Kingsley Amis
    Philip K. Dick
    Joan Didion
    Franz Kafka
    Hunter S. Thompson
    Evelyn Waugh

    Genre fiction has aged for me much better than literature. I still very much enjoy Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, as well as some of the slightly leaser knowns, like Frederick Pohl. “Gateway” is amazing and remarkably original in its conception and execution.

    I also adore Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie.

  13. s. wallerstein

    Genre fiction.

    I’m not much into science fiction, but I read and reread John Le Carré. There are scenes from the Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that I almost know by heart. Any other Le Carré fans listening?

  14. I actually just watched the Alec Guiness “Tinker.” Forgot how good it was.

  15. s. wallerstein

    If you haven’t seen it, the 1965 black and white version of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is excellent. Richard Burton was nominated for an Oscar for best actor and won the BAFTA aware for best British actor, The film won the BAFTA awards for best British film, for best art direction and for best cinematography-.

  16. I have not. Thank you!!!

    I just started “Smiley’s People,” but I think I may be too dumb for it. I have no idea what’s going on. 😫

  17. s. wallerstein

    Smiley’s People is the last of a trilogy beginning with Tinker, Tailor and then the Honorable Schoolboy, all of which feature George Smiley as the protagonist and Karla as his Soviet counter-part. If you don’t know what occurred in the first two books (or films), it may be hard to understand the third.

    I’m not sure if you’re reading or watching the films, but in my opinion Smiley’s People is the weakest of the three because Le Carré already has a best-selling formula and applies it more mechanically.

  18. s. wallerstein

    In any case, one of Le Carré narrative techniques is to begin a novel with a first scene or even scenes that don’t seem to lead anywhere, that is, until you get to the end of the novel and put the pieces together.

  19. I was talking specifically about the two Alec Guinness series. Several people have told me Smiley’s is actually the better of the two. But I am finding it mercilessly dense.

  20. s. wallerstein

    I haven’t seen the series, but Tinker, Tailor as a novel is far superior to Smiley’s People.

    Of all Le Carré’s novels that I’ve read, I’d call Tinker Tailor and The Spy who Came in from the Cold “literature”, not just genre fiction. Tinker Tailor is about loyalty, loyalty to one’s country, to one’s outfit, in one’s marriage, to one’s friends, to one’s commitments, etc. The Spy is about what values keep one going when the great narratives, God, freedom, socialism, no longer matter to one. I’ve seen The Spy on lists of the 100 best or 100 must-read 20th century novels in English.

    Smiley’s People, on the other hand, is just genre fiction. Le Carré has developed a cast of characters in his two previous Smiley or Karla (the Soviet spy chief) novels and he presents them once again in a new situation. Le Carré is a literary craftman, he knows how to tell a good story, how to develop interesting characters and he never fails at that, but in some of his novels he also reachs literary greatness.

  21. I’m a bit idiosyncratic in my tastes and aversions but for me the worst thing about the 1982 TV version of Smiley’s People was Eileen Atkins’ obviously fake (I thought) Russian accent. It jumped out at me (but what would I know?).

    Dan, there is some lovely stuff in that TV version of Smiley’s People but I think Tinker is better. I would suggest persisting.

  22. “And given how profoundly dependent good English usage is on writing, on print, the loss of literacy strips an expression like “good English usage” of any necessary reference.”

    I’d push back a bit here. I would say that a mastery of standard English (nothing fancy, mind) is still important if you aspire to leadership positions. You need to be able to write letters and reports, give speeches etc. in a certain style.

  23. A couple of years ago, having picked up two punctures while driving in the outback, I got stuck in a three-horse town. The friendly roadhouse cafe had a copy of “The Spy who Came in from the Cold”. I had a very enjoyable time while waiting for some new tyres to arrive.


  24. jofrclark

    If Academic English and Philosophy are exemplars of the Humanities in that they have exhausted themselves and are in their endgame, it is because they have lost their way. They have lost touch with their purpose – to know of the self. Their exhaustion is the direct result of their hyper-intellectualization.

    Intelligence is by nature objective, dispassionate, and unbiased. The Practical Arts lend them selves to intelligence as it is largely about objects external to the self. Yet the Liberal and Fine Arts query the subjective field of self-reflective thought and feelings which is inherently subjective, passionate, and biased. To be objective and dispassioned about the self is incoherent. The strength of the Humanities are in their acceptance and development of the metacognitive epistemic field of self-knowledge had through both passionate feelings and intelligent thoughts of the self. This requires accepting passionate feelings as epistemic as much as intellectual thought.

    Academia, including the Humanities, have been busy for the last few centuries being progressively more intellectual about the works of other’s and have in parallel progressively lost touch with the passions about the self. Thus Acadamia has been exhausted. Shared passionate and intelligent self-reflection requires no academic degree and belongs more to the writers and poets out in the messy hurly-burly of the the world than to academics. Out there is where philosophy needs to go as well.

    Out there in the wilds of the wold and the wilds of the mind is where renewal is to be had. That is where the “game” is afoot.

  25. I attended the funeral today of an Arts graduate who as a student specialised in medieval history and iron-age archaeology. His career was spent as an adviser and speech-writer to senior politicians, including to an Australian Prime Minister. It helps that he was a very bright person, but I think he was also very well educated, and this gave him “a mastery of standard English”, to put it at its lowest.

  26. Do you like more traditional mysteries? Or are you just into political thrillers and spy stories?

  27. s. wallerstein

    I don’t habitually read genre fiction except like Le Carré. If stuck in a situation such as Alan Tapper describes, I’ll always pick up first a spy novel, then a detective novel, then a cop novel, never science fiction or still less so-called chick lit.

    Here’s a taste of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the briefing where the protagonist’s mission is explained to him, a scene which shows Le Carré’s outlook on the spy business in general. This is not James Bond.

  28. Ah, too bad. I think Dorothy Sayers is really outstanding.

  29. s. wallerstein

    Thanks. I’ll put her on a list of possible reading. On your suggestion, I reread Play it As it Lays, which I hadn’t read since it first came out and it was worth rereading.

  30. If you do, I recommend the Harriet Vane series. They should be read in order:

    Strong Poison
    Have his Carcase
    Gaudy Night
    Busman’s Honeymoon

  31. s. wallerstein


  32. It’s interesting, but for me, genre fiction has aged a lot better than most literature.

  33. s. wallerstein

    I just reread Mann’s Buddenbrooks. It’s impressive.

    You have to be interested in the subject of a work of literature to read or reread it when you’re older. You can’t read it like you do when you’re in college because it’s considered great literature.

  34. I don’t think this is why I no longer read much literature.

  35. s. wallerstein

    For example, I read Proust’s Swann’s Way in college and always thought that I should read the rest of Search for Lost Time, even have bought some of the other volumes, but never have gotten very far in them. I realize that the world Proust depicts does not interest me nor does his point of view, although I recognize that he is a great writer.

    On the other hand, I just reread Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins, because first, I’m interested in the world she depicts, that of French leftist intellectuals in the years after World War 2 and second, because I’m interested in her point of view.

    Now if someone were to ask me, as a person with a MA in English and Comparative Literature, who is the greater writer, Proust or Simone de Beauvoir, I’d answer “Proust.”-

  36. s. wallerstein

    One more point.

    There are works of literature the interest of which transcend time, situation and place. It does not matter whether King Lear takes place in England or Russia nor in what century the action takes place. It does not matter whether Hamlet is prince of Denmark or of Thailand.

    On the other hand, I’ve read a fair amount of Philip Roth. He comes from and writes about Newark New Jersey and the Jewish community there. I was born in Newark within the same Jewish community and reading Roth’s account of it, for example, in American Pastoral, fascinates me and helps me understand my youth better. On the other hand, if Roth wrote about growing up as a Baptist in Omaha, Nebraska, he’d interest me less.

    Or take Jane Austen, who writes about mating costumes in late 18th century or early 19th century Britain, a subject which does not interest me at all. I have no wish to read more of her. Since France always interests me more than Britain, I prefer Balzac who is roughly her contemporary. Those tastes are highly personal and I don’t claim that they represent judgments of literary quality.

  37. I don’t read for the same reasons I used to, and I also no longer have patience for length. So, when I want to read, it is rare that I seek out literature anymore.

  38. s. wallerstein

    Maybe you could explain at greater length in an essay for the Electric Agora why you no longer read literature. That could stimulate an interesting discussion.

    After you recommended Dorothy Sayers, I realized that I have her translation of Dante’s Inferno, which I read as literature and not for any other reason. I have no idea whether her translation is dated or not, but it shows that she does have a gift for the English language.

  39. I’m not sure I *could* explain it. And I wouldn’t apply it completely generally. There is modern literature that I still enjoy: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; The Day of the Locust; Brideshead Revisited; Winesburg Ohio; The Trial. Some of it is to do with length. Some of it is to do with style. And I likely aways have preferred genre fiction. It’s more like the balance has just shifted even more in that direction.

  40. s. wallerstein

    I don’t see what all those works that you list have in common.

    Maybe if you were to list famous works which you do not enjoy and/or are definitively not on your future reading list, you’d find some common features. That might be a starting point for a discussion.

  41. They are all pretty short and written in a more compact, modern style.

    Stuff I have no patience for anymore:

    The Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky)
    George Eliot; Jane Austen; Dickens.
    Greek epics — Iliad and Odyssey
    Melville; Hawthorne; Faulkner
    Milton; Dante

    There’s probably more. But this is all stuff I used to love.

  42. s. wallerstein

    You don’t enjoy anything written before 1900?

    Shakespeare of course is short. You can read any of his plays in an afternoon. Especially since I imagine that it’s not the first reading for you.

  43. Pretty much. Not really interested in pre 20th century lit any more. And my interest within the 20th century is limited. As for Shakespeare, it’s the language I have no patience for at this point.

  44. I also love some of Orwell’s leaser known novels, especially “Coming Up for Air.”

  45. s. wallerstein


    I’m used to Shakespeare’s language, maybe because I was an English major. I also enjoy Greek literature, Homer and the tragedies.

    What irritates me is very explicit Christian literature like Dante or Milton. Even Dostoyevsky is bit Christian for my current tastes.

  46. s. wallerstein

    Haven’t read that, but I love Orwell’s essays.

  47. Rageforthemachine

    Professors Wallerstein and Kaufman,
    Your back and forth on your favorite types of reading made me wonder if you have any opinions on the value of a type of story that may embody the type of thing the Professor Winner was referring to: metafiction embodied by writers like Barth or Coover or Vonnegut. On the one hand it is still old fashioned story-telling which always has some pretension to dealing with universal themes, on the other hand it is story telling about the narrow act of using language in how you tell stories whose appeal seems confined to the academic study of language Winner was referencing.