PART way through Tradition, Seth Lerer laments that ‘[w]e spend our lives trying to make our intentions known. But our readers misinterpret, students come away with half-formed understandings, and reviewers want the book that they would write instead of what we wrote’ (36). To find myself so directly addressed as a reviewer made me pause. I had to admit that it was true that this was not the book I would have written if given ‘tradition’ as a title. Not least, I gradually realized as I read, Lerer’s definition of the word was very different from mine. I would never place the definite article in front of it, as he does, when he announces that ‘we read the tradition’ (29). In Lerer’s hands, the word ‘tradition’ becomes synonymous with ‘canon’. Indeed, he argues that readers should aim to curate a ‘limited’ ‘canon of “‘affecting sights”’; he announces that ‘[i]n this process of narrowing the canon, the reader locates him- or herself in tradition’ (34). Lerer’s vision differs from the centrally arbitrated canon of old in that he places a great emphasis on the reader developing his or her own canon—a personal catalogue of ‘a few great memories’ (34). He declares that his book ‘argues for the personal, felt life in literary history’ (3). He returns to this call for an ‘affective relationship’ between reader and work in his final chapter, arguing that ‘I believe that … we need to incorporate the personal histories of readers into the ways we make meaning out of texts’ (122). Indeed, as an example, Lerer lauds a moment from a book by Suzanne Juhasz in which she remembers taking Emily Dickinson’s poems on a camping trip and the sensation of ‘the rock under my back’ as she read them. As such, the lament that I quoted in the opening sentence of my review is not coincidental—Lerer’s heartfelt complaint is, in some way, central to the book’s project. In order to develop this ‘affective relationship to the literary past’, Lerer argues that it is necessary to engage in ‘close and nuanced reading’ or, simply, ‘“close reading”’ (vii and 29). I am all for close reading—or, more specifically, for what I define as close reading. However, again, I soon realized that my idea of close reading may not be the same as Lerer’s. For example, when he analyses Dickinson’s line ‘Today, makes Yesterday mean’, Lerer glosses this as meaning ‘it is the present that gives meaning to the past’ (viii). He does not address the—to me, obvious—ambiguity here: that ‘mean’ can also signify cruel. A close reading of this line, and of the dual meaning of this word in particular, exposes a much more perplexing proposition. The fact that Lerer shuns it leads me to understand that he is not the close reader I am. Thus, I am obliged to confess that, at this point, I did not fully understand what Lerer meant by close reading (I had also begun to suspect that, given Lerer’s fondness for listing questions, not understanding may be exactly the condition in which he wanted his readers to exist (19, 21, 48, and 100)). I believe I have finally worked out what Lerer means by ‘close reading’. It seems, finally, that he intends the term to mean something closer to what I understand as ‘scholarship’—a word he himself uses proudly in his preface (viii); he argues that ‘[t]radition, in my view, is not a thing, it is an activity’ and promises that his book will perform it (vii). Lerer argues that, for any literary work, ‘[a] good audience, then, is not simply one that listens. It is one that does so carefully, that attends to the challenges of your story’ (120). In this respect, Lerer is a very good audience indeed to the literary texts that he reads. For example, in his chapter on George Orwell’s 1984, he seeks ‘to show how Orwell concatenates past textual and linguistic traditions’ (75). In doing so, he makes numerous illuminating and scholarly links: he connects the opening sentence of the novel to ‘the allegory of Chaucer and Dante, the realism of Dickens, the philology of the OED, the apologetics of Lewis, the precious naturalism of Grahame’ (75). Finally, I found myself on safe ground: this analytical project of intertextual linking was exactly what I expected a book on tradition to do. It is, I feel, a very traditional approach to the question of tradition, and the book does it very well. Ultimately, therefore, the book performs something considerably tamer than that which it advocates. Lerer’s call for ‘personal histories’ of reading leads one to expect a series of confessional accounts in which Lerer describes the surroundings in which he perused his favourite novels and the emotions he experienced as he did so. Perhaps thankfully, he dodges the challenge he sets, preferring instead to offer a more ‘rigorous’ literary analysis in the traditional mould. In short, this book makes, but does not enact, some bold claims. It may, however, provoke others. It certainly provoked me. At the start of this review, I mentioned Lerer’s claim that ‘reviewers want the book that they would write instead of what we wrote’. In what might seem an act of absolute perversity, I have, throughout this review, recorded the ways in which Lerer’s book—and, in particular its terms—are not used in the way in which I would write them—much more so than in any other review I may have written. I did this because Lerer is right: I did read the book in light of the version I would have produced. I came to an understanding of the meaning of Lerer’s book by evaluating it against my own conceptions. I could not have done otherwise. Lerer’s bold claim obliged me, on this occasion, to be explicit about it. © The Author(s) (2018). 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Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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