|publisher:||University of Illinois Press|
The usual way in which to pose questions of the second sort — those about the books literary critics don’t read, rather than those they do — involves the biases of the canon. Why so many dead white men? Why not more books from the Global South? Why not more women and working-class writers? Why not more genre fiction and radical literature and everything that isn’t (or wasn’t) always shelved with capital-L Literature? Indeed, these were the pressing questions of a previous generation of literary scholarship. When it turned out that the answers on offer weren’t very good (Greatness! Importance! Tradition!), the canon changed in meaningful, if not radical, ways. Less Scott, Trollope, and Bellow, more Behn, Morrison, and Cisneros.
But changing the canon — or even a proliferation of canons, as literary studies has fractured into a collection of increasingly well-defined subfields — takes us only so far. Readers are finite creatures, capable of making their way through only a tiny fraction of the millions of books published over the centuries. The problem, at this sort of scale, has less to do with canonical selection bias than it does with our inevitable ignorance of nearly everything that has ever been written. It’s one thing to claim that a particular book was influential in its day (though influence is a tricky matter, more sociological and economic than literary) or that a text has been treated as important in subsequent scholarship. It’s something else entirely to argue that the same book is “representative” of a genre’s or an era’s output, especially when even the best-informed critics have read almost none of the material in question.
So how can we know the outlines of literary history without reading an impossible number of books? One answer is that we can’t. At best we tell stories, some of which are more convincing than others for their intended audiences, but all of which are based on vanishingly small slivers of evidence. Alternatively, we abandon the project entirely, preferring instead to make small but more easily defensible claims about individual texts. A third option, though, would be to change the way we work, to preserve large-scale claims by ending the singular identification of literary study with close reading.
If the idea of studying literature without reading it strikes you as somewhere between bizarre and dangerous, you’re not alone. There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to dismissing such projects as hopeless (or trivial, or both) or denouncing them as the death of the humanities. But it’s worth asking what they entail and what they allow before we resign ourselves to living with the tremendous limitations of reading alone.