• Daniel Vollaro

Airport Reading: A Meditation on the Future of the Humanities




On a recent trip to Sarasota, I found myself trapped in one of those impossibly long lines at security check in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The line snaked through a maze of plexiglass shielded aisles, and seeing that I was in for a long wait, I removed a book from my suitcase, Crises of the Republic by Hannah Arendt. I opened the book and picked up where I left off, in the chapter on Civil Disobedience.


“Change is a constant, inherent in the human condition,” she writes, “but the velocity of change is not.” Yes, so true, and isn’t America the nation of greatest velocity in this regard, always revolting against the past, pitting generations against each other, with children and grandchildren urged on to invent the future while the elderly are left to fade into the background? A nation acclimated to radical change. The nation, like a river, that no one can step into twice.


The line moved in a halting fashion, like a big chain being dragged slowly through an iron ring. I was in my own world, only vaguely aware of the people around me. The chain cranked forward again, dragging me with it. I tried to keep my place on the page as I walked to where the couple ahead of me had stopped. To be on a line, one surrenders their freedom. My book is a form of stoicism, a way of making the best of this situation.


Arendt’s point about change is that in the twentieth century, the speed of change “outstrippped the change of its inhabitants.”


Rapid, outstripping, bulldozing change has been on my mind since yesterday, when I shared a long phone conversation with a friend about reading. We are both associate professors of English at the same liberal arts college in Georgia, and we have known each other for almost twenty years. The conversation about reading began when he wondered aloud how it is possible to teach literature to students who don’t enjoy reading as much as we did at their age. He is speaking of the English majors we teach, a cohort of students who should be the most voracious and courageous readers on campus—the readers most willing to challenge themselves—but they are not, as a group, any of these things, and this fact fills both of us with frustration and disappointment.


An elderly woman in an adjacent line leaned in as she passed me and said, “I’m impressed that you can concentrate with all of this noise.”


“I just block it all out,” I replied. It is true. Long ago, I discovered the meditative qualities of reading. I can focus when I read. The noise and other sensory stimuli fade into the background, blurry and barely noticeable. In fact, the more challenging and difficult the book, the greater its capacity to turn down the volume on everything else swirling around me.


How do you teach literature to students who will not do all of the reading, who are not ashamed as we were at their age to show up to class having NOT done the reading, who will grouse and agitate if you assign too many pages of reading per week, who will proudly proclaim that reading the Harry Potter books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy has been the apex of their young reading lives. My friend and I are the same age and we were both English majors in the mid-1980s. We are both the beneficiaries of a classical education, his acquired as an undergraduate and mine acquired later. We remember our younger selves as deeply promiscuous readers. We read athletically. We were constantly falling in and out of affairs with books and ideas. We read everything on the syllabus and then prowled the library stacks for more. We do not read as much as we used to—that is true—but our minds were forged in the fires of that early reading.


This weighty subject—the future of our profession—had been pricking at me all day. I have lately felt outstripped by the changes technology has wrought upon my work, and this unease suddenly came into sharp focus when I peered up from my book for a moment to catch my bearings in that airport security line. I could see very clearly that most of the other travelers had their phones in hand, some poking at the screen or studiously scrolling, others simply holding the device at the ready for when that fleeting sensation of boredom washed over them. So many phones and not a single book in sight. No magazines or newspapers either. As far as the world of long-form reading was concerned, it was just me and Hannah Arendt dancing together in the midst of a slowly surging tide of humanity.


***


It would be too easy to draw hasty conclusions from the paucity of books in an airport security line. After all, I did see books elsewhere in the airport that day. They still sell them in some of the airport shops and there were a few in the hands of people waiting for their flights in the terminals or on the plane itself. Many people have discovered that a book is the perfect air travel companion, useful for its ability to ward off overly familiar seatmates. And it isn’t like books have disappeared from the world. According to the Pew Research Center, three quarters of Americans read at least one book last year and print books are still the preferred format for reading.


My experience in the security line told me nothing new. Of course everyone was on their phones trying to stave off boredom and discomfort, and under different circumstances, that would have been me scrolling through my Twitter feed. I am no elitist in this regard. But the sight of all of those phones did reinforce the totemic ascendency of this device in all things human. It also solidified the reality that while Americans still do read books (for an average of about 16 minutes per day, according to a survey done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) the great civilizational era of the book is rapidly drawing to a close. By this, I mean the primacy of books as the main conduit for storing and communicating knowledge. People like me and my professor friend are particularly sensitive to this phenomenon, because like polar bears trying to survive in the rapidly warming Arctic, we work in an environment that is on the front line of catastrophic change. The number of students majoring in literature, languages, philosophy, religion, history, and English has plummeted since 2008. At my college, a new cinema production major ballooned to three times the size of the English major in its first year and took a sizable chunk of our majors with it. This is the competition and we are losing.


People like me. College professors? Intellectuals? Bookworms? I am probably a bookworm, or was one once, before the creeping seduction of digital technology chewed away at my own interest in and capacity for athletic reading. Like many people in my academic circle, I read less and watch more scripted dramas lately. We all talk about it, the ways in which streaming content and social media have altered our relationship to books. The not-so-guilty narrative pleasures of the Gold Age of Television.

I certainly felt like a bookworm standing in that security line. I stood out. I was the oddball. But bookworms have always stood out in American culture. Richard Hoffstadter wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life because he was horrified at how McCarthyism targeted intellectuals in the early 1950s, but as he explains throughout the book, this is nothing new. North America was originally settled by religious zealots who were in revolt against the decadence of Europe and periodic waves of religious revivalism have reinforced the “religion of the heart,” which values authentic expressions of emotion rather than the fruits of the mind. Hoffstadter also identified the business sector of American life as a source of anti-intellectualism for placing a “premium upon rough and ready habits of mind, quick decision, and the prompt seizure of opportunities” over “deliberation, elaboration, or precision of thought.”


Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, an avid reader whose entire career as a writer would have been impossible without his immersion in books, felt compelled to mock bookworms in his famous 1837 address to the graduating students of Harvard University. “Hence the book-learned class,” he complains, “who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and soul.” The ideal American intellectual was a creature he called “Man Thinking” who rejected conventional thinking and "accepted dogmas." Unlike the bookworm, Emerson wrote, Man Thinking understands the proper balance between words and action, deferring to the latter in most things. He reads not merely from the classics but also from the vast tableau of Nature, history, and human experience.


Though he is a beautiful writer and thinker, Emerson is not my muse on matters of the mind. That distinction goes to his younger friend, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote this in his essay “Life Without Principle”: “Not without a slight shudder at the danger, I often perceive how near I had come to admitting into my mind the details of some trivial affair—the news of the street; and I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish—to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought.” This was a man who understood how many of us—intellectuals, bookworms, eggheads, bibliophiles…whatever you want to call us—regard our minds. For us, there is something special about the discourse of books. Elevated? Perhaps, if only because we know the rigorous processes underlying book publishing. All of that copy editing and fact checking and proofreading matters to us. So does the intense labor we see evidenced in the final product—the research, the many person hours of work, the blocks and doubts overcome. There is a difference between the discourse of the book and the “news of the street,” and this is the problem staring many of us in the face: digital technology has facilitated a mental environment in which the distinctions between different kinds of discourse are virtually erased. Everything gets leveled into the same scrollable feed on a device that invites the shallowest possible encounter with the written word.


***


The other book I brought with me for the airport is a novel, The Human Stain, by Philip Roth. I have been slowly making my way through Roth’s novels for the past two years. When I finally boarded the airplane, the woman to my right, who was silent to the point of being willfully antisocial, pulled out a book a few minutes after takeoff. It was one of the Jack Reacher thrillers—I forget the title now. A solid choice. Bravo to her for keeping the novel alive.


The Human Stain, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, is about a classics professor named Coleman Silk who is fired for using the word “spooks” to describe two students who had not yet shown up to his class during the first week of semester, and who, he later learns, are both African American. Rather than give him the benefit of the doubt, his enemies in the administration use the incident as an excuse to terminate him. Coleman’s reputation is further soiled when, two years after he is fired, he begins dating a woman half his age who is employed as a janitor at the college. But Roth withhold’s Silk’s biggest transgression until the middle of the novel: He was born black but has been passing as white and Jewish for the past forty years.


Early in the novel, Silk is described as “outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer, something of warrior, something of an operator, hardly the prototypical pedantic professor of Latin and Greek.” He is also arrogant and sexist and utterly lacking in humility—the kind of literary character who is ripe for a fall. Initially, he reminded me of the kind of professor I enjoyed as a college student in the 1980s—the brilliant, articulate, funny lecturer who could hold court for over an hour in front of a room of fickle college students—but by the middle of the novel, I had soured on him. He reminded me of the experience of reading Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind in my final year of college. Bloom aimed that book at my entire generation of college students, standing high atop his classical education to boom down at us that we were weak, thin-skinned, shallow, and uninterested in learning. We didn’t believe in anything, he accused us, and we therefore left ourselves open to believe in everything, even the most trivial and stupid things.


Bloom’s diagnosis was staggeringly wrong. He thought that changes to the culture would doom the humanities. We wouldn’t read the great books because we were too addled by pop music and dumbed down by our “value relativism” to think that the classics had anything to teach us. In truth, the humanities have never been grounded in the values Bloom assigns to them. They have always been subject to the push-pull of the marketplace and driven by fashions in intellectual thought. What unifies and enervates them is the primacy of the book and long-form reading, and the idea that some of the books that have survived the test of time actually do contain important ideas. If Bloom had a crystal ball to peer forty years into the future, he might have been humbled to learn that the real threat to the humanities wasn’t Mick Jagger after all, but instead the steady advance of Moore’s Law and something called the iPhone.


The elderly woman sitting to my left did not have a book in hand, but I noticed that she was staring at mine, perhaps trying to figure me out based on the few clues offered by the cover. She was chatty, which I don’t mind. When I put the novel away and the coffee cart had staggered down the aisle past us, our masks came down and we made small talk about our families. When she learned that I am a college professor, her demeanor changed. She sort of twisted in her seat uncomfortably. I could tell from her body language that she wanted to ask me something, and finally, she just blurted it out.


“What do you think about CCT?


I know what she meant even if she couldn’t even properly name it.


“Do you mean CRT,” I asked?


I immediately regretted engaging with her. I should have played dumb. I shouldn’t have corrected her. I should have let her struggle to explain Critical Race Theory to me, or whatever mangled, fear-studded version of it she had gleaned from FOX News. The plane had already landed at this point and we were rolling towards the terminal. Why was I allowing her to bait me into this conversation?


I immediately donned my professor’s cap. I tried to explain that CRT isn’t anything she should worry about. There are a lot of theories about race among historians, and shouldn’t the purpose of history be to uncover what happened in the past—the facts—rather than making people feel good about their country?


“Why do they want us to hate our heritage,” she blurted out?

What I wanted to tell her but was too polite to say is this: If you’re so afraid of Critical Race Theory, you should read a book about it so at least you understand the thing that you are criticizing. But there is no polite way to say this because America's great ocean of anti-intellectualism is always there, ready to rush in and make a desert island out of anyone who suggests that you open your American mind by reading anything.


And this is where my American mind and Allan Bloom’s converge. We both agree that the value of a humanities education is that it helps people learn how to think critically, to be able to pause and use their reason to organize a thought, to position themselves as thoughtful, independent people.


At this point, I realized that the woman was not listening to me. The Jack Reacher fan had fled down the aisle along with most of the other passengers. The woman to my left was irritated because even though I had approached her with restraint and respect, she was looking for affirmation and I could not give that to her. She grabbed her things and pushed past me with a brusque “nice talking to you.” And then she was gone, up the narrow aisle and off the plane.


This is the future that awaits us in the post-book era, when our society finally comes unmoored from long-form reading as the basis for knowledge and decision-making. It will be Know Nothingism on a grand scale. Conspiracy theories ripping through the population like out-of-control viruses. An army of old ladies on planes who will indignantly defend ideas that were spoon-fed to them by skillful propagandists. CCT. CRT. No matter. The point is they want us to hate our heritage.


***


My college professor friend is concerned that the humanities are doomed. He is very possibly correct. Literature, philosophy, history. These are all disciplines with very deep roots in the book—reading the book, loving the book, analyzing the book, teaching the book.


I once heard a Pueblo Indian friend of mine observe that children in his community understand their language, Keresan, when it is spoken to them but they don’t answer back. He is concerned that because of this disconnect in the transfer of language, their culture may eventually die out. Their culture, he says, is embedded in the language.


This is the way I feel about the relationship between the book and the humanities. The latter is embedded in the former. If the book atrophies, the humanities will die. If the stewards of the humanities disciplines—people whose base of knowledge originates from reading dozens, perhaps hundreds, of books as doctoral students—cannot convince the next generation of scholars to commit to the same regimen of long-form reading, then the entire enterprise is doomed. The concept of expertise in the humanities rests on an episteme in which the main ideas were gleaned from decades of study and analysis of books. This book-based operating system cannot simply be swapped out for a different one.


What comes next for us? We are both in our fifties. Should we hold out for a miraculous renaissance of the book? Do we settle for some kind of greatly diminished, boutiquey role for our discipline of study, the academic equivalent of the blacksmith or the glassblower? Do we add it to the museum of nearly deceased disciplines of study? I brought my daughter to see a glass blower a few years ago. It was wonderful. He crafted these beautiful globes and bowls while we watched and listened to him teach us about his craft. When it was over, we were ushered into the gift shop where he was selling hand-blown Christmas tree ornaments for $20 a pop. What will my discipline of study have to offer in the marketplace after its light flickers out in the academy, what overpriced bauble version of my ten years of graduate studies and twenty years of teaching? The glassblower in his disciplinary obsolescence will likely fare much better than I will.