After reading D.G. Myers and the Little Professor on the timeliness of literary history, especially in light of Mark Bauerlein’s discussion of the “diminishing returns” of literary criticism as performance, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way literary scholars read each other’s books. And one of the things that struck me was the (obvious?) fact that scholars routinely read literary histories about books we’ve never read before, because we want to learn more about them, and possibly read them ourselves. Not so, I suspect, with the conventional close readings of literary critical monographs, which I’m assuming are pretty well useless with authors or works we are unfamiliar with or uninterested in. Am I wrong about this? Because my intuition tells me that close-reading monographs are books that are only useful for those who are already committed to the value and interest of the works studied. And this might account for the decline of such single author books, in the absence of a clear consensus about which books to focus on.
Although I usually disagree with Bauerlein, I think he has a point about the overproduction of literary criticism, and think that LP and Myers are probably correct to focus on literary history. (That’s why I’m writing one myself) But while I was mulling over this, I realized that I’d just read an entire series of exchanges on EMOB and on this blog about the allure of “machine reading” books for literary criticism. And I myself get nervous about being led through a huge database without reading everything myself, and allowing the machine to do the searching for me. But then I realized that we often read literary histories for exactly this kind of searching/sorting through of possible leads for our own research. So why not use such “finding aids,” especially when we have an entire category of scholarship devoted to producing such “aids”? Or is this too deflating a description of our own scholarship?