I haven’t been very good about adding entries to the English Department blog, but in my defense, there are good reasons for this: the problem is I don’t really know anything about English, or criticism, or literature—and I don’t really read either—so there it is.
This is because I never studied English, or criticism, or literature. I was trained as a classicist and as a linguist. When I studied at Columbia, classicists were beginning to look at English departments with a certain envy, and I remember being at a cocktail party with a bunch of professors—among the great Helene Foley—(when did colleges stop having cocktail parties with undergraduates and professors?) and listening to a dispute about feminist criticism: was it just too modern for classical studies? Foley, who was adamantly in the modernist camp, argued forcefully for the value of modern critical approaches, and she would go on to write a bunch of lovely stuff on the role of women in tragedy. So, yes, there was some literary criticism there, but it was, in my education, on the fringes, and so some of what my colleagues find as second nature—ideas that they were stepped in as graduate students, for me are far less familiar, bits that I’ve only picked up in pieces over the years.
Of course, there are probably lots of English professors across the country who are not entirely up on the latest theories of literary criticism, so in this I am hardly alone, but that’s only half the problem: then there is my lack of reading. Sure, there are a few canonical authors I love (I’ve made it a point to read and see most everything by Shakespeare), and occasionally I’ll binge through a novel, but there are real gaps in my education here, and, of course, they grow even greater as the discipline moves ever into a more inclusive canon, or even a world beyond canon. A decade ago, I was eagerly trying to catch up on the gaps in my education, but in more recent years, I’ve more or less fallen back into my more myopic view of texts.
I don’t read much; I get stuck on words, and grammar and syntax, and most of what I’m looking at isn’t in even in English. Before going to sleep, I’ll often read something: a few verses from the Old Testament in Hebrew, or a page or two from Homer in Greek; and lately I’ve been working on Akkadian again (my long plan to read Gilgamesh isn’t going all that well—after several weeks I’m still on the first page).
There’s a science fiction novel I read when I was young (Options by R. Sheckley , OK, I read more then). In it there is a list of the possessions of its main character who goes by the name of Mishkin; the last item is “A Sanskrit grammar. Mishkin once planned to lean Sanskrit in order to read The Upanishads in the original. Now he doesn’t even read them in English.”
I think about this and I worry, because of course, I could have read through all of Gilgamesh twice in the time I’ve spent on the first dozen lines. But, on the other hand, maybe there is some value in missing the forest and enjoying the trees.