Features June 1989
The mild-mannered humanist
On The Pleasures of Reading by Robert Alter.
A friend of mine tells the following story: her son, an aspiring writer who is matriculating at an Ivy League university, was witnessing the classroom deconstruction of some classic text or other when a soft-spoken fellow student raised his hand gingerly and made a modest proposal. “Why,” inquired the classmate—who had apparently been moved considerably by the masterpiece that was nominally under discussion—“do we have to take this approach to everything? Why can’t we talk about this book in some other way? Why can’t we discuss how it affects our emotions, and how it manages to do that?” The professor’s response to this respectful suggestion was dismissive, if not downright contemptuous: “If you want to have that kind of conversation,” he sniffed, “you might as well go back to high school.” And the deconstruction proceeded apace.
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