Tuesday, February 07, 2023

'Indifferent to the Common Reader'

“Today, the whole idea of the common reader -- whether an actual reader whom we might specify as part of a social group, or a projected desire of an ideal audience -- has virtually been abandoned in the academic literary world. A tremendous and, I think, disastrous change.” 

Could the common reader be the coelacanth of our day? You remember the fish assumed to have been extinct since the late Cretaceous period until fishermen netted one off the east coast of South Africa in 1938. We can’t look to academics, as Irving Howe observes above in a 1989 interview, to reanimate this living fossil. In his “Life of Gray,” Dr. Johnson tells us that when reading that poet’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” he “rejoice[s] to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.”


Johnson’s assessment of Gray’s poetry was lukewarm at best, except for the “Elegy,” which had been immediately popular with readers, often reprinted, and today reads like Bartlett’s Quotations: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”  “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.” “Let not Ambition mock their useful toil.” There was a time when many readers were “common,” and their minds were stocked with scraps of verse, when poetry was read for pleasure and inspiration, as a species of wisdom. There followed a period when the minds of English professors and students might be similarly equipped. That too has passed. Gone are the days when Johnson could write:


“The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. . . . I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.”


No need to rehearse the reasons for the common reader’s near-extinction. Instead, let’s consider what motivates the remaining uncommon common readers to read. Some hybrid of curiosity and intellectual hunger, I would guess, a wish to know what other minds have known. Common readers read independently, without regard for fashion, for pleasure and self-improvement, and to honor and sustain tradition. Such reading is its own reward. The interviewer asks Howe if any room remains in academia for an intellectual (a detestable word) “who seeks frequent contact with the common reader.” Howe replies:


“From my association with J.V. Cunningham at Brandeis -- a poet-scholar I admired enormously and whom I look upon as a teacher -- I learned that scholars need not be the musty, irrelevant sort of drones some of us had foolishly supposed them to be. I learned that scholarship can be as serious, indeed exalted, a calling as the intellectual life and that often enough the two could unite. (You have to learn something as you get older.) My complaint about a lot of what’s going on today in the academy is that it is insulated, seemingly indifferent to the common reader who is still out there, lost in a tangle of categories and phrases, but not especially scholarly, and, so far as I can tell, not deeply engaged with literature.”

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