Monday, May 30, 2011


I finally got around to reading David Lodge's Changing Places today. I'd been meaning to for some time, and after finding a cheap copy in the used bookstore near me the other day, I could see no reason to put it off any longer. Part of the impetus behind my desire to read the novel came from the fact that it is, by far, the book I'm asked most often if I've read. This mainly has to do with my answer to the dreaded questions "What are you interested in?/What do you study?/What is your research area?" I never quite know how to answer those kinds of questions, so I usually mention that I'm interested in novels about the academy. The next question, almost without fail, is "Have you read Changing Places?"* Now I can say I have.

The novel was as funny and charming as people assured me it would be, and I enjoyed reading it. One particular passage early on in the novel detailing the scholarship (or lack thereof) of Philip Swallow describes a problem I often run into (though nowhere near to the extent of Swallow):

"Philip Swallow was a man with a genuine love of literature in all its diverse forms. He was as happy with Beowulf  as Virginia Woolf,** with Waiting for Godot as with Gammer Gurton's Needle, and in odd moments when nobler examples of the written word were not to hand he read attentively the backs of cornflakes packets, the small print on railway tickets and the advertising matter in books of stamps. This undiscriminating enthusiasm, however, prevented him from settling on a 'field' to cultivate as his own. . . . Seldom, indeed, had he drawn up a preliminary bibliography [for a project] before his attention was distracted by some new or revived interest in something entirely different. He ran hither and thither between the shelves of Eng. Lit. like a child in a toyshop - so reluctant to choose one item to the exclusion of others that he ended up empty-handed" (17).

I think we're to laugh at (along with?) Swallow here, but this seems to me like more of a description of a lively and active mind. As a professor once told me at a department party, "it's nice to be able to talk to people about something other than your own research." I have more or less settled on a field--or at least a time period--but I do genuinely love literature (along with various other cultural texts) and can get distracted rather easily by the next shiny thing that flies past my face. There are too many interesting things and not enough time to read them all, let alone talk about write about them.

Besides, it can be kind of fun to just let one's intellectual wheels spin and explore whatever appears. Rigour, discipline, and focus are important, too, but literary analysis is fun (or at least it is for me). I think anytime one analyzes something it can be useful and beneficial (if only to keep one's "mental muscles" in shape), even if just to serve as a reminder of how fun and pleasurable this can all be. That's what makes a book like Barthes' Mythologies so readable: his pleasure and amusement with his own work is there, transparent on the page. Now, this sense of fun, of pleasure, of (the word cannot be avoided) play, can be infuriating (as Derrida makes all too clear far too often, in my opinion) if it lapses into smugness and self-satisfaction--or if it ends up fostering or encouraging a kind of solipsism--but, by and large, I think it's a good thing. Cultural texts and literary analysis are tremendously powerful and serious things, but they are also bright, shiny toys in a toystore. I think I spend more than enough time working from the former position and not nearly enough working from the latter. I'm going to try, though, in the next year to recapture my sense of play. We'll see how this goes.

*Sometimes they can't remember the title of the book and can only vaguely describe the plot (and I can then guess the book because of other, similarly vague descriptions of the novel's plot), but they're almost always asking me about Changing Places. Occasionally, they'll ask about Richard Russo's Straight Man or Philip Roth's The Human Stain  (both of which I've yet to read), but 90% of the time, they want to know if I've read Lodge.

**If these are my two options, I'll take the back of the Cornflakes box, thanks.

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