Monday, July 16, 2012

Robert Grudin's Book

Robert Grudin's novel Book (1992) is great fun, even more so if you are in academia. What I love about it is that it skewers parts of academia, but the author is an academic, with a wide variety of serious scholarly works to his credit, even some with titles he tends to make fun of in the novel. It takes a special kind of novelist to poke at what he clearly actually likes. This book is damned funny.

A controversial and not particularly well-liked English professor at a mid-sized university has disappeared. His claim to infamy is a novel he wrote that was published by a small press and quickly went out of print. Then it seems that all the copies of that book are disappearing too.

The book even has footnotes and glossaries, ostensibly for the non-academic reader, but hilarious. So, for example, right after "deconstructionist" he lists "defication," which means "deconstructionist term implying a connection between writing fiction and defecating" (p. 62). There is a quote from an article in the International Journal of Failed Results. He has footnotes talk about themselves as footnotes, angry about the message they are footnoting, and calling for more footnotes to join a rebellion. Over and over, Grudin pokes at academic rituals.

There was an unexpected layer of pure and wonderful irony to my reading experience. I had heard about the book and bought it used online. The copy I received had been marked up in places, ponderous and pompous, with references to Nietzsche and copious underlining. At first I found it annoying, but then it somehow became an organic part of the book itself. That anonymous previous reader was taking very seriously a text that was specifically intended to puncture seriousness.

Every profession has its perverse elements: just read a novel about Wall Street, for example. But in academia we tend to revel in it. Arcane jargon, infighting, insecurity about publication, concern about where you are on various totem poles and, yes, copious use of footnotes to denote erudition (not to mention using words like "erudition"). Every so often, it's useful to step back and think about which parts of these rituals are just ridiculous.


Anonymous,  5:21 PM  

You might enjoy Richard Russo's "Straight Man," which is a comic novel set in an English Department.

Greg Weeks 6:45 AM  

Yes, that is a great book, also really, really funny.

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