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800 Words

Eat This Book

April 09, 2006|Dan Neil

Here are words that no parent wants to hear: I've decided to major in English.

I suppose it could be worse. Theater arts, music history. I actually announced to my parents that I was majoring in creative writing, which is the rough equivalent--in terms of employment opportunities--to majoring in liturgical dance.

The English major presents for his or her parents a lexical quandary: What to call the graduate? My son the geologist, my daughter the physicist--these ring familiarly. But there is, ironically enough, no word in English for the English major. Our son the . . . um . . . who speaks English.

The high-minded, lowly employed English major has become a stock comedic character, most lovingly lampooned by Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion": Is this a spatula which I see before me?/The handle toward my hand?/And on thy blade brute flesh and dudgeon and gouts of blood./(DING)/Behold a car approacheth to the window./Now I must do the work fate sends me./And better it were done quickly.

Occasionally English majors will rise to greatness--astronaut Sally Ride has a B.A. in English, as well as a not-unhelpful PhD in physics from Stanford--but in the main, English degrees are regarded as the heart's triumph over the head, or the degree you get before you learn something useful. It's rare that the boss asks you to put a PowerPoint presentation into ottava rima.

And so I was cheered (note the archaic usage, so typical of an English major) recently when I found Richard A. Lanham's "The Economics of Attention" amid a forlorn pile of books (personification--again, so typical) rejected by the book review editor. "The central commodity in our new age of information is not stuff but style," read the cover blurb. "In such a world, intellectual property will become more central to the economy than real property, while the arts and letters will grow to be more crucial than engineering, the physical sciences, and indeed economics as conventionally practiced."

Really? No kidding? Sweet! I want to be director of well-turned phrases for the Federal Reserve.

Actually, Dr. Lanham--a professor emeritus of English at UCLA and a man of Rabelaisian intellectual appetite (oh, please, Rabelais?)--makes no such claim in his learned if eccentric book, which will stretch the ligaments of the best bibliophile (Quintilian, Castiglioni, Peter Drucker, Konrad Lorenz would make for a handsome game of contract bridge, don't you think?).

What he does say is that in a world freighted and fretted with information overload, the skills to make sense of it all, to lasso the fleeting attention of the public, are the old skills. The art and technique of rhetoric (from the Greek word for "orator") was part of the trivium, the three-legged stool of a classical liberal education, before "rhetoric"--and "liberal," for that matter--became a dirty word.

People trained in English and rhetoric are, as Lanham would have it, information stylists.

Along the way, Lanham--a Yale PhD and general heavy-hitter in humane letters--makes the argument that the expressive digital space offers possibilities beyond the ant-marching typography of the printed page. He proposes that text become more active and dynamic, morphing with meaning, and he points to shape poems (poems about light bulbs, for example, that look like light bulbs on the printed page) and Medieval illuminated manuscripts as early examples of the text as hyper-artifact.

What would this new text paradigm look like? "I'm not sure what comes next," Lanham concedes. Yes, me neither. Actually, I was in the weeds back in Chapter 2.

What I really want to know, as I sit at his dining room table with Lanham and his wife, Carol (a Latin scholar), is whether English majors really will inherit the Earth? Will knowing the difference between ottava rima and a Spenserian sonnet form prepare you for work in a technological society? "You can't make single connections like that," says Lanham. "You have to look at what that teaches you about the use of rhythm in your expression, indeed, in all parts of your life."

Hmm. I don't find this answer that satisfying. All my life I've been looking for a reason why I had to read "The Faerie Queene." I'm still looking.

English is certainly useful. If, for example, you find yourself in a strange country--like Georgia. But the fact is English majors must take their satisfactions as they find them. Lanham pulls out C.S. Lewis' essay on the compensations of a literary life. "This is the sentence that always gets me," Lanham says, almost choking up. "'Literary experience heals the wound without undermining the privilege of individuality.'"

"Looking back on it," he says, "I feel I've dwelt in this immensely rich world. I've dwelt in marvels and riches."

It's a pity street fights don't end with spelling bees or the consummation of a hot date doesn't depend on proper conjugation. Studies in literature are their own reward. However, fries are usually free.

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