Monday, October 26, 2015

When Dickens Is a Distraction

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle Review
By Ivan Kreilkamp October 25, 2015 

A recent issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine offers a promising feature: "Guilty (and not-so-guilty) reads of the Yale faculty: What your professors read when nobody’s watching." It’s a potentially juicy idea that yielded disappointingly tepid results.

The editors of the magazine admit, "The first thing we learned when we asked faculty across the campus to share their guilty reads: Not all Yale professors know how to relax. Their summer reading lists included the likes of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin — a groundbreaking work by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, but not exactly escapist. Other books sounded suspiciously like fodder for future papers."

As I leafed through the article, I found myself mentally awarding points to any prof whose supposed "guilty reads" were in fact even remotely embarrassing or guilt-inducing.

It’s no surprise that detective fiction — long the acceptable light reading of the professoriate — often turns up in the responses. Robert Stern, dean and architecture professor, recommends Georges Simenon’s Maigret thrillers and Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series, documenting the Peculiar Crimes detective unit in London; Sidney Altman (biology and chemistry) likes mysteries by Philip Kerr and Andrea Camilleri; Diana E.E. Kleiner (art history and classics) suggests Diane Mott Davidson’s culinary mysteries about "a spunky heroine named Goldy Bear."

OK, the Goldy Bear whodunit does sound a little silly. But if a taste for detective fiction was possibly, once upon a time, considered mildly outr√© in Ivy League faculty clubs, it’s been more than 70 years since Edmund Wilson declared (in his 1944 "Why Do People Read Detective Stories?") that he was "always being reminded that the most serious public figures of our time, from Woodrow Wilson to W.B. Yeats, have been addicts of this form of fiction." Detective fiction has long been a safe harbor for professors who wish to show they can unwind without risking any true status demerit.

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