SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
SPEAKER 2: I'm introducing it. So I don't have anything prepared, and I haven't memorized the very, very long list of all of Professor Schwarz's books and all of his prizes and teaching awards. I will simply say that Dan Schwarz is the Frederick Witen Professor of English and the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow. And he's going to be talking about his new book, In Defense of Reading. So welcome Dan Schwarz.
DANIEL SCHWARZ: Thank you, Roger.
Thank you all for coming. I'm kind of touched by this audience. What I'm going to do today is talk for half an hour, maybe 35 minutes, no longer, about the book. And then I'll take some questions.
This book is part of a series called The Blackwell Manifesto series. And the idea is to ask people who have written a good deal to really do exactly what they want to do. That is, this sounds like a booster gram. But they say ask major critics to make timely interventions. And the idea is to write a book really for undergraduates to postgraduates, but also hopefully to have some appeal to a general audience.
So that's what I tried to do. And the book really has six chapters. In the first, there's a preface talking about my ideology of reading and how I teach a little bit. And then there's six chapters. The first is called the "Odyssey of Reading." And this is a chapter which talks about how I think about why we read and how we read.
And then there's a second chapter which, again, which talks about reading and what we learn from our reading. And that chapter and the first chapter, too, has a fair amount of close readings and analysis of texts but in a way that I hope avoids the academic jargon. And these are texts that are pretty well read.
And then I talk a little bit about my own career in a chapter called "Eating Kosher Ivy" and what it was like to be a Jewish professor in an Ivy League school when there weren't too many and particularly too many who had a New York accent. And then there's also a chapter about how I integrate teaching and reading. And some of my students would recognize my voice in that and how I teach at various levels.
And then the last two chapters I sort of talk about what I call the poetry of the university. And I talk about some of the ideals of a university. And then in that chapter, I also talk about what I call the prose of a university or the economics of a university. I guess that was somewhat prophetic because I didn't know we would have an economic crash. But it's talking about how humanists function in the academic world. And there's a fair amount in that chapter of things about the financial underpinnings of the modern university. And I did some work in that area, somewhat helped by Ronnie Ehrenberg, whom I thank and who knows a great deal about the economics of the university.
And then finally, the last chapter is really addressed to people in the profession. And I consider the profession and how it's going to evolve in the 21st century and how the humanities will probably be taught. But I also talk about how one makes an academic career in a stringent environment and talk about some of the issues within literature departments, as opposed to general university.
And it should be said, particularly to this audience, that most of this book or much of it is inflected and defined by 41 years of teaching here, minus some sabbatics and times when I was a guest scholar somewhere else. But this is really a book with a very strong Cornell inflection. So that sort of lays out what I was doing.
And let me talk now a little bit about my credo as a critic and as a teacher. Some of my colleagues will, of course, recognize this and so will my students. And incidentally, thank you all for coming. If the students want to sit up front on the floor, you could if you wanted to. Is that all right, Darren, all right? All right, so let me state my own credo. And some of this may sound slightly simplistic, but it speaks to, really, some of the issues that are at play in the humanities.
Literature is by humans, for humans, and about humans. The humanistic critic understands artists' lives in human terms rather than as superhumans, as it were, of a different species and realizes that there's a place for both biography and history in understanding literature. I teach, really, with a certain number of principles in mind. One of which is, I say to my students, always the text and always historicize. And I guess I've been saying that for a long time.
What that means is that we have a healthy respect for the words on the page, the text, the is-ness of the text. And we also appreciate the aesthetic. We appreciate the beautiful. And we look, we try to look, within the imagined ontology or the imagined world of a work, and we ask who is speaking to whom and what happens here. And that first part of my mantra, always the text, leaves room for appreciating the felicities of language that render the particular and also leaves room for responding to human motions dramatized within the text, as well as to the felicities of language, the beauty of significant form.
When we talk of the meaning of significant form, we are really also talking about the significance of meaning. And one of the things that I was taught as really the only way, when I was younger, to understand literature was to think about the inextricable relationship between form and content. I grew up in an age where historicism was somewhat put on the back burner. But gradually I understood as I started to teach and write, that one has to know a good deal about the history.
And what always historicize means is that it gives us space for understanding an artist within his historical and cultural context. And we understand that writers respond to historical moments. There's no such thing, really, as the historical fallacy or the biographical fallacy. And in fact, I consider myself a pluralist who tries to bring to bear really every kind of critical approach.
One of my other ideas about reading is the text teaches us how to read them. So in fact, we read texts differently. For example, when we read a text like James Joyce and say we want to know more about biography than perhaps we need to know about a different kind of writer, like Wallace Stevens. So books, in fact, often teach us how to read them.
And in a book, for example, this sounds like a complicated example, but in a book like Joyce's Ulysses, where in a chapter in the book, in a middle chapter, he explains how he reads Shakespeare, the character does. And that tells us that reading in terms of a character's life is something that we need to take very seriously. It does this not without some irony, but still, the book is telling you to look for what might be called an expressionistic ascetic. And expressionistic for the non-academics here means a writer reveals and writes about his own psyche and his own values.
So historicize includes understanding an artist within his historical and cultural context. It also, historicism, can mean also understanding things that are not fully expressed. We sometimes bring from our distance at a later time things to a text that the writer may not, for one reason or another, have made particularly clear. So there's kind of an historicism of trying to recreate the milieu in which a writer wrote.
And there's also a second historicism to think about what are the social and political factors which make characters who they are, take for example Balzac's Pere Goriot. And then finally, there is historicism which actually places the reader in a position in relationship to the text. And that third kind of historicism we sometimes call resistant reading because we sometimes notice things that the original text, maybe even the author, didn't quite bring to the foreground.
Now what is an example of that, Schwarz? OK, here is an example. An example would be something like "The Secret Sharer." When Conrad wrote "The Secret Sharer" it is not absolutely clear how much he had homosexuality in mind as a theme. And certainly the first and second generations of people writing about Conrad did not even mention homosexuality. And yet, later on critics became aware of the fact that these two guys are sleeping in the same bed, which is approximately-- It's a bunk bed in an English ship with the approximate width of this table. And clearly something is happening when two men are sleeping in the same bed. Whether they have full sexual relationships or it's a strong homosocial bond is somewhat questionable. But they look and admire each other naked.
So this is an example of our, the reader, historicizing here means seeing where the reader is in relationship to what's being dramatized, whether the author is aware of that or not. And that's a kind of historicism. So historicism simply means, not so simply means, being aware of social and economic and historical factors that affect texts.
And sometimes I'm asked is there a truth criteria for literary criticism or for reading? Can you actually-- Is it all up for grabs? Or are there better and worse ways of seeing if you understand, say, either the aesthetics or the historical contexts of a text? And the answer is, I think, a kind of tentative yes.
I think we all read differently. One of the things that I was taught is that there was an absolute reading. That if we all studied the text long enough and thought about it hard enough, we would come to the same interpretation. That's probably not true. That is, we all bring something different to a text.
There has been some writing in recent decades about interpretive communities. That is, if you have a group of people with the same training and the same experience with a text, would they come to approximately the same reading of a text? And the answer is probably not. Probably the largest interpretive community is one. Because we each bring something different to text. And I think when we teach and when we are in a classroom situation, we need to acknowledge that. And we need to listen to our students and to appreciate that there are multiple ways of seeing.
Is there a truth criterion for reading? Well, that's also hard. I sometimes have difficulty with people who theorize about post-colonialism and who have never been to Africa or to third-world countries. It's all very well to talk about Africa, but when you go there you realize that there are great ambiguities, for example. And that while, as an intellectual said to me in Zimbabwe, colonialism was bad, this is worse.
And so we need to be aware, actually I think, of some of the underpinnings of books. And I think the more you know, I mean, this is something I think that's very important. The more you know about context, whether it's political, the better readers you are. And so I think, at least, that the fact that I've traveled helps me understand. But that doesn't give me the ticket to perfect understanding. But I think that it does help.
So I guess I want to say before closing the comment right now on historicism, that one meaning of historicism, not the only one remember, but one meaning is to keep one's eye on what Robert Frost called-- I like this quote-- the larger excruciations, by which he meant, I think, hunger and poverty and war and tsunamis. And not to think that literary texts exist in a vacuum. In other words, I actually think one understands, for example, a text by knowing something about history in contemporary texts, 20th century texts, texts by Gordimer or Achebe, people like that, by knowing more about what happened in Africa and what is happening.
And I do talk a little bit about one of my other fields, Holocaust Studies, in my book. And again, I think I try to show that historicism is extremely important and maybe even more important in that field than some others. But I don't think the balance between the text, or always the text and always historicize, is the same in every text or every problem. Nor do I think there's one way to teach a course.
I guess in my own teaching I tend to still be a formalist. I'm very interested in beginnings and endings and about the imagined world of the text. And I'm interested in how texts signify. And I guess I'm still interested in formal issues. And I use them in my classes, as my students, many of whom are here, some of whom are here, know.
But I think, I still think, asking questions about aesthetic issues, who's speaking to whom, who's narrating. And one can do that, you know, you can do that at a very sophisticated level or with a very elaborate vocabulary. But you can also ask these same questions without getting into words like extradiegetic and things like that.
So I think part of what I'm talking about in this book is this relationship between teaching and writing. Now, what I try to do is, in my classes and in this book, is show how different kinds of questions are appropriate for different kinds of texts. And rather than write 30-page chapters, which I've done on lots of these books in other venues, and I just write a handful of, I write maybe 10 or 12 pages, on quite a number of texts, sometimes talking about how books begin, how books end, how books move. Talking sometimes about poems. I've talked about Holocaust texts. So I try to test some of my ideas in very different kinds of situations. And usually starting out as I do as a teacher with very basic questions.
I ask questions, as I said, like who is speaking to whom and why? What is happening to the people within the imagined world of a text? Always remembering that these are not real people but that they are metaphors or figures for people. What is their role in the narrated events? And how did they resist, affect, or change the events? What is the historical context? And what is the socioeconomic cause and effect within the imagined world?
In fact, in general you have much more of a political and social and economic cause and effect in European novels than you do in the English novel of manners. That's just in general. You're seeing much more of that at work in Stendhal or Balzac or certainly Tolstoy than you might see in the novels of Jane Austen. But that is not to say that there's not a strong historical perspective there.
So these are some of the things I talk about. I used the word pluralism before. And what do I mean by pluralism? This is a term that's fairly important to my aesthetics. A pluralistic approach allows for sort of multiple perspectives when talking about a text. And we already talked about some of them. That is, we talked about the aesthetics, we talked about historicism, we talked about the kind of subdivision of historicism which is sort of resistant reading, a new historicism.
But what I think is is that pluralism is a way of having a dialogue among different approaches. And I think that is important. In my teaching I don't like to impose one way of looking at things upon a text. And I like to talk about how different approaches work on a text. This is something that's actually been argued about by a leading critic named Gerald Graff. He calls it teaching the controversies. And I don't quite do that, in other words, because I try in my teaching to keep my eye on the primary text.
In other words, I try to bring in multiple points of view. But I don't necessarily in undergraduate classes spend a great deal of time reading secondary material that would represent every sort of approach. But I might bring it in as kind of what might mediate it as opposed to have some students-- I know there are classes, and I've actually talked to Graff about this, that they read a lot of secondary material. It's good to read secondary material. But you don't want it to replace the primary material.
Now, let's talk about what we do as humanists I talked about my ideology of reading and a little bit about my teaching. And I guess when I think about it, I probably should say one more thing at this point. As you can see, I don't really want to read a text.
My idea of teaching is to build what I call a community of inquiry. That is, I want to draw upon the interests of the students even while contributing to their growth. So in a class, for example the Holocaust class which had its last meaning today, one of the things we try to do is to-- Some of the students come from backgrounds where they are the children of survivors. Others of them take the course because they're interested in German studies. Others of them take the course because they're English majors looking for another course.
DAN SCHWARZ: Some of them are history majors, but the idea is to try to build what I call a community of inquiry by tapping the various interests and strengths of the students so that we have that kind of colloquy. And I think that obviously the material is foregrounded, but one of the things I try to do is think about a class is by humans, for humans, about humans. In other words, I try to remember that we're not just talking into free space.
Some very many, many years ago, a high school teacher that I very much admired claimed that high school teachers teach the subject to people, and college teachers teach the subject. And certainly I've seen that in universities. But I try to eschew that particular mode of operation.
Now, what is our role of as humanists? There's a transition now. Our role as humanists is to focus attention on what is special and distinct in the human enterprise. In my case, that has ranged from studying and teaching the magnificent experimental novels of Joyce, Conrad, and other modernists. For those of you who are not academics, we think of Modernism-- Modernism when I went into it was the period from about 1890 to 1950. Now literary modernism has become the period from 1500 to 1950.
So now my period which was called Modernism is now called High Modernism. But these things change, right? And so what I teach is called Modernist. And what I try to do in my classes is talk about Modernism in its cultural milieu. I do quite a bit with the relationship between art and literature. And that's been kind of one of the areas, I suppose, which I'm known for. And I talk a bit about that in this book, but not as much. I'm not trying to sell another book as I did in the book. It was sort of the opening, and I get into that area for me.
And of course, I now also teach about the literary depictions of the horrors of the Holocaust. We need to remember that art, and of course I'm teaching a subdivision of art, literature, and sometimes art, painting, is how we make sense of the world. Literature is about how we transform world into words and words into world. Right, some of you Joycians will know that. Literature and the other arts are a window on to who we were and who we are. And when I teach and when we read, I think we need to strike a balance between addressing ethical and political issues raised by artistic works as well as the forms.
I think literature professors also need to focus on the creative act. We need to understand how imagination transmutes a kind of vision of the world into something that is an imagined world. And I think that's part of what we do. And we've talked a little bit already about what else we do as a cultural historian. We focus on historical and social context.
Now, let me talk a little bit about this profession which I have so proudly been part of and have enjoyed so very much. I began teaching at a time when many literature students and professors had an idealistic sense of mission and believed that reading canonical text carefully was a means to heighten student's awareness of the world around them, increased their ability to make moral discriminations, see themselves more clearly, and understand the behavior of others.
That is often thought now to be an obsolete way of looking at literature. And yet I still believe it. I still believe it's not the only way, it's not the right way, but it is a way. I still think that reading texts, notice I left out canonical text. We've expanded our interests to include other art forms, even literary professors have. And we understand that there may be--
Canonical texts are not the only kind of text. We understand that we can learn both from high culture and middle culture and low culture and that the differentiation between high culture and what we might call popular culture is not quite so arbitrary. And in fact, recently I wrote a book about popular culture, which probably somewhere and somebody said what is he doing? It's a book about Damon Runyon. It was called Broadway Boogie Woogie Damon Runyon in the Making of New York City Culture. And I use that example not to send a boast-a-gram but to just explain that I'm doing work now that an English professor didn't do.
Remember, part of my title was teaching literature in the 21st century. If I had written my book on the Holocaust as my book coming up for tenure in 1973, it would have been a passport to obscurity. You couldn't do that. If I had written my Runyon book, same thing. Right now I'm working on a book on the New York Times. That is, we've expanded what English professors can do in a very healthy way.
So when I said that I still believe that reading texts carefully is a means to heighten student's awareness of the world around them. And I would add to students all adults, all of us. And I still believe reading increases our ability to make moral discriminations, to see ourselves more clearly, and understand the behavior of others. But what I think is a very positive, optimistic way, I am sort of an antediluvian in some circles.
But we believed, we had a sense of mission. We thought our work was important and not simply part of making a career or getting a professorship. And I write in the book about some of the changes in the profession. And I also write about some of the future of the profession. But I guess I want to just say now as I move on to my next topic, and I'm only going to talk for another 5 or 10 minutes, my belief that great texts have gravitas and that by understanding their precision and their subtleties and intricacies we learn from them is still an important part of my passion for teaching.
OK, so obviously reading has changed. And some things have changed very much for the better. We have a diverse faculty. We have a diverse student body. This is wonderful. The canon is undergoing change. There were writers that were valued when I was in graduate school and a few others who have kind of become remote parentheses. And then there are other writers who have become foregrounded. And all of this is good. Talking about literature and music in the 20th century is wonderful. I don't do it very well. But I enjoy hearing the people who do it very well.
So I think we also need at some point, and I talk about this in my book, to take pleasure in the joy of teaching and appreciate what we as teachers do. And when I think about teaching, I think a literature teacher really has four missions. One is to teach students how to read with sensitivity and percipacity.
A second is to think them to think critically, by which I do not mean thinking in terms of literary jargon but to analyze, to not trust everything the professor says, to think for themselves, not to just tell them but to ask them. I remember reading a long time ago, I think Jacques Barzun had said that an impressive professor was an oppressive professor. We want to listen to our students.
The third thing we need to do is teach them to write. And when I say third, these are fourth of equal value here. Teaching writing in a way that's teaching clear and lucid writing, not just academicese. And the fourth thing that we should stress more than I sometimes think we do right now is to teach people to talk, to give a talk. So many times when I go to conferences, people just read papers. You know, if I were reading this talk, several of you would have gone to sleep already. And possibly I would have to because I wouldn't have to think of what I'm thinking next. So I think that those are sort of missions as teachers.
In my first chapter, I talk about something called the odyssey of reading. And this is a metaphor that I use as a way of talking about what happens when we read. And I do so in terms that tries to show us how we move from beginning to ending. But I also think about reading as a journey of the mind to understand a world beyond itself. And I talk a good deal about what happens when we read and in fact go to a film or a concert. But mostly my concern is with imaginative literature.
Complex texts that present difficulties and frustrations, texts such as Moby Dick or Ulysses, which some of my students in my Ulysses class are here, tend to make reading a journey with setbacks and challenge. Like the protagonist undergoing a quest, we are often buffeted about and need to stop frequently, particularly when these texts are long. But when we pick up the text, we resume our journey. The destination of our odyssey of reading is the moment when we close the text after our last word. But that's, of course, the beginning of another odyssey, the odyssey of reflection.
And I sort of press this metaphor, at least for a while, in the first chapter. I think of reading as a kind of travel, an imaginative voyage undertaken while sitting still. And I talk about what happens when we read. Some of this I talk about in some depth and talk about stages of reading. And I'm not going to talk about that today.
But reading is immersion. Reading is reflection. Reading takes us elsewhere, away from where we live to other places. We read to satisfy our curiosity about other times and other places, to garner information about what is happening in the world beyond our lives, and maybe even to gather our courage to try new things. Even, maybe, we find in reading sometimes admonitions not to try certain things. So we read to learn about experience. And it may even be about experiences we haven't tried.
Our readings help us formulate narratives. What does that mean? It means our readings help us formulate narratives in the terms of our hopes, our plans, our putative triumphs, our imagined future. Reading also helps us understand our past. Words enable us to discover, and I use this in the subtitle of The Odyssey of Reading, it tells us about ourselves and our origins, words I've stolen from Wallace Stevens, who's one of my favorite poets.
I think I want to talk, I guess, before I quit a little bit about the future of literary studies. And then I'm going to stop and take some questions since I've talked for maybe 35 minutes or so. And this is something I think some of you may want to, if we have this discussion, chime in with some other ideas. What kind of profession, I ask myself, will succeeding generations find? And I've been asked this question often. And so I decided to think about it knowing that I'd probably be wrong on a lot of my guesses.
I think the future of English literary studies will be literary studies in English. That is, there'll be more reading of translated texts. There's going to be, I think, more emphasis on globalization in non-western literature. And I think there's going to be more courses that are not just in national literature. But there'll be more courses, what we now call Comp-Lit, courses in other than English literature and sometimes English literature thrown in. I think they'll be somewhat of a merging of the fields of English literature and Comp-Lit.
I think also we're going to be more aware about how East and West have shaped cultures in both areas. I think we're going to understand that the division between East and West that many of us were educated in is extremely arbitrary. There was a recent exhibit which I saw at the Metropolitan Museum, Venice and the Islamic world and which examined the relationship between Venice and Islamic culture over a thousand year period. And I think we're going to see more of that.
We're going to be more aware of how art in different cultures has different purposes. We are beginning to understand that the decorative and aesthetic function of Western art is not carried over into African art. That African art makes masks, African art, for example, has practical uses such as the masks and tribal rituals. Carved pillows and walking sticks are art. And we're going to understand, then, also that some of the literature that comes out of Africa, such as Achebe, is going to have different purposes.
And I think we're going to come to appreciate in the future more different kinds of popular culture. The artistry of furniture and automobile design, for example, has been foregrounded at the Guggenheim. And if you'll notice when you go to museums, tapestries are now much more likely to be involved in the main museum. You know, a lot of them, for example, if you wanted to see tapestries, you used to have to go to the cloisters up there. Now a lot of that stuff is actually being brought back to the main museum. The point is our understanding of art has changed.
And now you're thinking, yes, but what is he going to say about the Internet? That's the very next point, digital and video art forms, YouTube, things that I barely understand. I mean, Marsha and I will be having breakfast, and she'll ask me what Twitter is. But I mean that as there's going to be the aesthetics of email. There's going to be the historicism of email. Things that we don't even-- Younger scholars will work on projects that I can barely imagine.
More courses will be offered in literature in translation. And translations will include languages that we haven't imagined, really. I mean, there will be more translations of Hindi and Urdu and African languages that we barely understand. And of course, this creates a different problem because it's very hard to do formal analyses of translations. And so this may in fact nudge us further away from sort of aesthetics and more towards talking about content. Because we are most of us, at least my generation, are trained to worry about the aesthetics of translation. Why? Because you're not looking at the original words. You're looking at somebody else's words. Probably shaped by the Internet, criticism and scholarship will be more collaborative even though each of us may be working alone on our computer, sort of along the lines of Wikipedia.
I want to close by making one or two one other suggestions about the future of literary studies. I expect that fundamental anthropological and even neurological questions will be asked within the field of literary studies about how memory and imagination works. I noticed the New York Review had an article about memory, a book by Susan Kaplan. And I have to admit I didn't understand everything that was being written.
But I think we're going to ask within the field of literary studies about why humans have the capability and the desire to deal with fictional worlds. Why we often do so, deal with fictional worlds, and why we often deal with our own reality in story form.
We've asked what the nature of narrative is. We're going to ask, I think, what the human need of narrative is. And it may be a human need that has issues of DNA and neurology that we don't even begin to understand. I think we're going to draw upon work now being done in cognitive studies and perhaps discover enhanced ways of reading.
Our discussion of narrative will be more informed by the discoveries of science. We will be thinking more precisely about how memory and imagination works and how we talk and things like that. And more deftly we'll be able to understand how we transmute memory into narrative.
We may learn, perhaps from the next generation of graduate students or the next, far more than we know about which of our human needs are fulfilled by reading in silence. Think about reading in silence. We didn't talk about that in my book. We read and write in silence. But what needs are fulfilled by reading in silence about an imagined world even while belonging to communities of readers having a similar, but often quite different, experience? In other words, we're all reading the same book, but we're reading it alone.
We may come to understand, in fact, whether literature has an evolutionary function. When we do so, our defense of reading may be more precise and more eloquent than anything that I can say. Thank you.
Does anybody have any questions? Thank you all for coming. Yes, Ronnie?
AUDIENCE: You talked in the book about the future of the humanities in a university that's increasingly dominated by the sciences. And I'm wondering if you [INAUDIBLE] for your talk, any instance of that?
DAN SCHWARZ: That's a good question. Ronnie, I think I thanked you before you came. Ronnie helped me a great deal about talking about the economics. I talked about the prose of a university and the poetry. The answer is, the economics of the university which Ron is really the world's leading expert on, does affect the humanities. I mean, right now we're under a financial crisis. And we're being asked at least to create models of cutting back. But the humanities don't raise much money through grants.
And, you know, the problem with the humanities in terms of the economics of universities is that people ask what are you doing. You know, we don't patent what we're doing. No truck backs up to the Goldwin Smith to take away the widgets that we manufacture today. So we have to justify ourselves in somewhat in the very intangibles that I spoke about.
Obviously, we sometimes think that we don't get the attention that sciences get. And you've written about how humanists don't necessarily make the same salaries as Jeffrey Sachs makes as an economist. So we have to justify. One way we justify ourselves, obviously, is by teaching across the spectrum of the university where it's our responsibility to feed in much of what's called the writing program.
And another way is our teaching loads are larger. And we have to continually make the case, I think, that I've been trying to make today, what humanities do, what we do as teachers. I think that, I mean, one of the things I didn't talk about actually which worries me is what I call the decline of the public intellectual, which I just contributed an essay in a book of that. Because if we talk in academic jargon, and we sort of ostrich ourselves and pretend that we are doing work that's so important that we can't explain it to the rest of the world, this is not good for the humanities.
It's good for the humanities when people can speak about what we do. I mean, one of my sort of litmus tests always has been if I ask somebody in the sciences or engineering what they do, that they can tell me, assuming that I can understand. And I think we need to be able to do that. I think that one way the humanities has somewhat gone astray is creating our own private language. I mean, I think science has done a better job sometimes in explaining what they do than what we do.
And that there's this incredible divide between, sometimes, the world of the university, say, and the world of journalists. And doing research on this book I've been writing on the Times, the Times has been pretty generous about giving me access to wander around their building and talk to people there, obviously by appointment. But they think that we're all talking in tongues, particularly literature professors.
And I think it's important that we kind of bridge the gap. I mean, I am all in favor of people like Stanley Fish writing blogs for the New York Times. And I am all in favor of people when asked going on NPR and talking to people. I think crossing over is very important. And I've tried to do that in some of my books. But I also think that we need to encourage people to be part of the public discourse, whether it's locally or beyond that.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, I had a question for you. Most things I've seen have gotten considerably better. My TV's gotten better from the first one I bought. The engineering are building great buildings. Athletes have gotten bigger, stronger, better, faster. Is it true that, are the modern authors better than the Shakespeare and Tolstoy? Can you make that leap of faith?
DAN SCHWARZ: Well, I was going to call on you to answer that. He's a great Shakespearean. Are modern authors better? I don't think so. I think we like to think in the humanities that there's a kind of teleology of criticism, that we're all getting better and smarter so that my criticism is better than my predecessors'. And my younger colleagues will write better than I.
I'm not sure that criticism advances teleologically, like a kind of evolutionary Darwinian, that's what I mean by teleologically. And I'm not at all sure that the same thing is true, I'm sure it isn't, that writing gets better and better. I just don't believe that.
I think that there are some great writers in every era. And truly, even though I've been reading a lifetime, and really this book is really kind of a book report on a lifetime of reading and teaching, I haven't read a fraction of all the books. And I'm constantly discovering what's this that I neglected.
My colleague Kevin pointed out an author. Kevin Attell, professor in English, told me about an author that I was sort of very vaguely aware of it. Like so vague that I knew he had written the film for the Garden of the Finzi-Continis. And now I've read everything that's translated by him. And I found some things that I just think are absolutely masterworks, including one book that's not even available in English anymore, except those five short stories.
So I don't think writing is getting better. I mean, we have amongst us in America, we have some very great writers. I mean, the next time it's America's turn to win the Nobel Prize, I would guess it would probably go to Roth or Updike. I'd put my money on Roth, personally, because I like him better. I mean, we certainly have productive writers.
And it is true that the act of writing has changed because of the Internet. I mean, however many books I've written, I could have written a lot more if I had the Internet the first 12 or 15 years. I mean, I'm talking now about the fact that you can look up anything like that and also the fact that it's easier to write on a word processor, I think. Although there are still some people out that I know who write from yellow sheets of paper.
But I think the technology, it helps writing. But it may also, there may be ways in which the technology doesn't help writing, too. It maybe that we write too many words. It may be that the activity of editing takes different forms. It may be that if you don't go to bed. You're sweating over a sentence because it's there, and you can play with it the next day. So I think, you know, I don't know if I've become an easier writer or a less neurotic writer. Go ahead.
AUDIENCE: You talked about crossing over where literature professors would come out on the radio and newspaper and talk about what they're doing. Do you think in the 21st century there might be a different kind of crossing over where literature professors may go read those books behind you about the sciences with the same kind of reading strategies that you were talking about?
DAN SCHWARZ: Well, I think that my reading strategies are good for reading any text, maybe not advanced formulas. I read science, not dense science. But I try to read books about evolution, which is a subject that interests me. And I try to read the Science Times which, to me at least, is very valuable on Tuesday.
But I think skills of reading can be taught. I mean, one thing that's slightly different in the scientific writing they want people to write in passive voice. And we write in active voice. But I think skills of reading closely and carefully are somewhat transferable. Although, as I say sometimes, because Roger kindly mentioned I won some of the teaching prizes here, and when I'm on those committees I always remind people if somebody is on a committee and saying, well, what kind of teaching is that. I remind people that teaching and probably reading is somewhat field specific, that there's not like one universal rule.
I can remember when I was on the Rice committee trying to explain to people that we all don't do exactly the same thing and that we have to sort of try to imagine that there are other kinds of things going on in the world. I was the only English professor there. But it's not always just one person talking to another without notes. Which that's sort of the model that some of us have of teaching, exactly what I'm doing today. But there are lots of models. And there's lots of models of reading. Any other questions? Go ahead. All right, Scooch.
AUDIENCE: As you know, sometime in the '70s and the '80s, there was a movement out of France which was called antihumanism.
DAN SCHWARZ: Right.
AUDIENCE: And that has had a great influence right here at Cornell.
DAN SCHWARZ: Right.
AUDIENCE: And some other institutions. Did you feel as a humanist an obligation to engage with that attack.
DAN SCHWARZ: Well, I have engaged with that attack, as you know, in several books. I mean, I would say that as much as any one I'm a successor to you and Abrams as a humanist at Cornell. You know that. So certainly underlying my basic premises are implicit discussion with other kinds of reading.
So in my work, I've engaged Derrida and Structuralism and Post-structuralism. But I have to be fair. I've also assimilated some of what they taught. My pluralism includes respect for the emphasis on resistant reading and the emphasis on New Historicism, the emphasis upon kinds of reading history in terms of the dispossessed, the women, the poor, the powerless.
So I don't consider myself antagonistic to everything of French theory. I think I've learned a good deal. I've engaged with it, yes. I've engaged that in my life a great deal. And probably whatever reputation I have, some of it comes from books like The Humanistic Heritage and The Case for Humanistic Poetics. This book was somewhat appealing to a larger audience.
And so the kinds of discussions I had with Duman-- I've written a pretty well known piece on the Duman-- are not in this book. They are mentioned, and I talk about Deconstruction. And sometimes what I learned from it was respect. But the kind of analytic and the word that used to be used, rigorous, debate, I've had elsewhere. I mean, it's in my books. But that wasn't the purpose to revisit that here.
But you know, I always tried to find, frankly, even within the Post-structuralist, and some of the people, I mean, I knew Derrida a little bit, I tried to find humanism in those people when I could. And I have been debating and talking to those people and have been on panels with them for much of my professional life. But I don't consider myself an anti-anything. In other words, I like to think that the doors and windows are open and that I've learned from them.
I certainly have learned a lot from Derrida in terms of looking for gaps and fissures and enigma. And I've learned about Foucaultian aspects of talking about history. So I don't toss those people. But when I think they are wrong, or like one of my famous encounters was working with the war time journals of Duman. Many wrote about that in the '80s. I did a kind of dog and pony show on that with some people on the other side. But I'm not doing that now, at least not today.
When you mentioned the word crossover, I also meant, and I use that word a little loosely, crossover to me also meant some of my books have been sort of jointly published as academic books and nonacademic books. The book on Runyon or the Holocaust, I try to write books that don't appeal just to the 400 people who might buy an academic book. So crossover means sort of writing for a larger audience. Anyone else have a question? Mark.
AUDIENCE: You mentioned the period after reading when you close the book and reflect. I wonder if you have any particular wisdom for us on that process?
DAN SCHWARZ: There is a process which I talk about in the book which begins with immersion in the text while reading to the kind of retrospective feeling you have when you close a book. And I go from stage one to five. And the fifth stage is sort of assimilating it into what we know about life and what we know about history. It depends on, obviously, the book.
But I think what we bring from the book is not exactly the book because your memory quickly fades. But it kind of takes its place in your pantheon of understanding. So an example of that would be some of the books that I mentioned in passing today. Like for example, the Balzac and Stendhal and how I understand them. And so your memory of a book is not the whole book exactly. It's sort of how you take it into your perspective of everything else you've thought about and studied.
And there's a stage of critical analysis, and then there's a sort of a final stage of putting it within your own personal zeitgeist or context. But this changes, too. I mean, I love to reread. Marsha sometimes make fun of that. She'll go and read another book, and I'll read the same book for the fifth time.
And it's not just because I'm going to write about it, although I often do. But it's also the idea it just sees different and feels different. I mean, reading a book a second time is it's not the same experience I mean, a kind of jouissance and a kind of pleasure, if you use Barthes term, in rereading. And I've actually talked about in some of my books the aesthetics of rereading. And I talk a bit about that here which is very different. So that's sort of a partial answer. Yes, go ahead.
AUDIENCE: So if we're going to accept the internet, right, then we also have to accept the language of the internet. So that would include text messaging.
DAN SCHWARZ: Right.
AUDIENCE: How would these acronyms, the omgs and the ru, affect the humanities? I mean, the ones who are text messaging now are the ones who will be writing later in the future.
DAN SCHWARZ: Well I mentioned, you know, I think that people are going to write. I mean, they are writing. There was two weeks ago, if you remember, there was a feature on New York Times magazine called "Screens." Well, "Screens" is actually the name of a blog by Virginia Heffernan who's sort of their hipster. And so she had obviously talked the editor of the Sunday magazine section into giving her a shot. And they talked about some of these issues.
I think that people are already writing about email. I mean, I have a son who text messages. And frankly, and this is my blood, I said I would rather hear from you on telephone than to get three word messages here, half of which are written in some foreign tongue because they are initialed. And then also things happen, you know. I mean, someone's going to write at least about the social aspect of text messaging and also the social aspect of email.
I mean, is it a political act to write people three word answers to complicated questions. And can you do that, or are we moving toward some sort of reductive non-language?
And did you ever notice, he says as someone who does it, how many typos you make in emails because you're trying to answer more than you possibly can? Probably half the people in this room have seen me. I mean, I don't make typos in my books, and I try not to in-- But you're doing so much writing.
And text messaging is even is even worse. So you can get misunderstandings because people can leave out a letter or they send a word, they send you something without vowels. And you wonder if they're talking about a product or if the missing U between the F-C-K is something. In other words, you start wondering about these missing letters. You know, you get this text message with no vowels. And you try to think how are you going to construct that as a message. Anyone else? Let's take this the last question. Go ahead.
AUDIENCE: I wonder if you could speak further about a point you made at the end of your talk that of the confluence between literature and the cognitive sciences. I'm speaking as a neuroscientist and sometime English major. And we see this happening in new books like Lisa Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction and even in new departments like cognitive studies at Case Western Reserve.
But it has struck me from participating in it as a scientist, that it's very much a one-way conversation. The literature people are reading cognitive science. But the neuroscientists aren't really reading literary criticism. And to some extent. I think that's enforced by the structure of academia. I mean, when I write about autistic memoir and its relation to literature and the arts, as a neuroscientist scientist I'm not doing anything for my tenure case. So I wonder where that is going and whether the existing structures of academia are really going to put the brakes on it.
DAN SCHWARZ: Well, I think that's a very good question. I've often wondered why there hasn't been more dialogue with cognizant psychology at Cornell. I would be more worried if you were not reading literature and not reading literary criticism. But I would be interested in knowing or learning or talking to people about why people read literature, what it does for us. Is this an evolutionary thing because we don't know that people were writing stories. They were writing pictures 10,000 years ago.
We see the beginning of story, right, with the Egyptians and the Sumerians. But I would like to know what triggers that and how that interplays with what we know about recent work and evolution. And I don't know that. And I'm not sure it's just you missing. I don't think, maybe, we've paid as much attention to that. And maybe one of these humanities seminars should take that up.
So I think that it's hard to break down into disciplinary habits and boundaries. And often when we do, we follow the flow. And we often don't think out of the box. And we need someone to take that initiative.
Well, thank you very much. If you want, I'll-
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In support of his new book, "In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century," Professor Daniel Schwarz led a discussion of the future of literary studies. A professor at Cornell for four decades, Schwarz is eminently qualified to consider and critique the 'fate of the humanities' question that is of such great concern on campus and beyond.
Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow. He spoke Dec. 12, 2008 at the Cornell Bookstore.