I'm what's wrong with the humanities. HOW 21st century digital culture makes it impossible to read a 19th century novel.

One passage in particular appeared and reappeared for days in my Twitter feed. It featured Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard's dean of undergraduate education and a professor in the English department. 

She was one of several academics who described, in Nathan Heller's phrase, an ''orientation toward the present'' among contemporary college students so powerful that they '' lost their bearings in the past.''

'' The last time I taught ' The Scarlet Letter, ' '' she told him, '' I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences - like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb .........

Their capabilities are different, and the 19th century is a long time ago.''

Like all the others who managed to make their way through Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school, I read this with a mix of smugness and horror. Then, naturally, I scrolled to the next declinist indicator, the next sign of cultural apocalypse.

What I did not do was click through and read the whole Heller piece [though I have read it now, I swear it!]. Even more conspicuous, I definitely did not go pick up a copy of '' The Scarlet Letter '' or any other 19 th-century novel and begin reading it for pleasure.

'' The answer to the question, ' What is wrong ?' is, or should be ' I am wrong,''' Chesterton once wrote. And any response to the question of what's happened to the humanities has to include the same answer.

The Harvard undergraduates who can't parse a complex sentence from the American Renaissance are part of the problem.

But so is the Harvard-educated newspaper columnist and self-styled cultural conservative who regularly unburdens himself of deep thoughts on pop TV but hasn't read a complete 19th-century novel for his own private enjoyment in - well, let's just say it's been a while.

Note the caveats there : ''complete'' and ''private enjoyment.'' I have read pages of Victorian novels fairly recently, usually going back to familiar territory for the sake of some idea I'm kicking around, and I've begun entire books, with the best intentions every time.

When our family was listening to the musical ''Les Miserables'' on repeat, I read the first few hundred pages of the Victor Hugo novel, getting far enough to plan out an essay contrasting the insane confidence of his authorial voice with the diffident style in contemporary fiction - an essay, however, that required finishing Hugo's book which I did not.

As for my recent assaults on somewhat shorter 19th century tomes, the less said the better.

I flatter myself that I can mostly follow the sentence structure in these books, but in every other way I am the reader described by Claybaugh, too attached to the distracting present to enter fully the complex language of the past.

And I resemble other characters in the Heller piece as well. The academic who describes how he's traded novel reading for website browsing? Me.

The peers that academic describes who ''think of themselves as cultured'' but ''cannot! Stop! Themselves!'' from busting out the iPhone, even at a live performance? Me again.

The celebrity academic par excellence, Harvard's Stephen Greenblatt, awkwardly reconciling himself to his own discipline's irrelevance by talking up the literary aspects of long-term television? 

Not me; surely, I'm not such a cliche - except for the essay I just wrote about ''Yellowstone'' and the one before that about ''Fleishman is in Trouble'' and before that ............ [sighs with self loathing, collapses into a chair muttering about the '' Dickensian element '' in ''The Wire''].

But let's shift from self-flagellation to description. Because there's still the second caveat to mention :  I'm not reading 19th century novels to myself, but I have read them to others recently.

Specifically, I've read them aloud to my older children, first '' Pride and Prejudice '' and now in a slightly more intense experience ''Jane Eyre.''

The quest, understandably enough, has always been to sustain relevance and connection - to politics, to professional life, to whatever trends appear at the cutting edge of fashion, to the idea of progress.

But that quest can end only in self-destruction when the thing to which you're trying so desperately to bind yourself [ the culture and spirit of the smartphone-era internet, especially ] is actually devouring all the habits of mind that are required for your own discipline's survival.

The Master Comprehension Publishing continues. The World Students Society thanks author Ross Douthat.


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