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B(f)logging Howsam

September 14, 2009

I’ve been enjoying reading your blogs, especially your views on Howsam’s text. One post in particular generated several responses.  I’m appreciating the comments there, and on other blogs, on all sides of the issue of the “worthwhileness” of reading Old Books, New Histories.

Just a few points to contemplate as we move forward:

1)      Cultural studies can be dense and difficult (and this text is not a particularly so, comparatively speaking).  This neither means that readers, especially new readers, are stupid or that the texts are not worthwhile.  Comprehension (and beyond that, integrating the work into your knowledge schema) is a _process_.  This work will mean more to you in 15 weeks (I hope).  However, if went on to grad school, and somehow returned to this text, you’d make much more of it then.  You’d understand the background, more of the references, and have more meta-disciplinary understanding.  Even in the short run, though, I think there’s much we can get out of it if we strive for understanding before (or at least while, ideally instead of ) short-circuiting—and so many of your blogs tell me that most of you did get some salient “take-aways” from the text.  So be careful: it smacks of a disturbing anti-intellectualism to blame the text (or author) when meaning is not transparent or “easy.”

2)      Work on disciplinarity, much less interdisciplinarity, is also difficult. This is because we are not used to reflecting on epistemology—how we know what we know.  We’d like to believe because it’s simpler—that knowledge just is.  But it’s not.  It’s socially constructed, which is why the attention to language is so important (and why Howsam devotes some time to terminology).  Language is our lens on the world.  What we call a field determines the very sorts of questions that can be asked—and therefore the answers that can be “found” (created)—within it.  This is not “mere semantics” then (though I don’t ever think of semantics as mere), but a crucial conceptual point.

3)      The work was also accused of representing an “obscure niche in the academic cave.”  This is simply, indeed factually and verifiably, not the case.  Book History is a growing field, with new work published every day, new centers founded in universities, and a large international conference held annually.  Journals in a variety of specialties, including our own  premier English journal, The PMLA, have published special issues on it. If anything, the field risks trendiness, with all the negative connotations of that term (sloppy work, undefined terms, bandwagon scholarship, etc).  Leslie Howsam is a respected scholar in the field and one of its innovators.  She should not be dismissed.

4)       I think it’s help to realize that you (undergraduate English majors) are not necessarily her target audience.  She’s writing for practitioners and advanced students in a developing field, trying to give them a lay of the land they’ve been working themselves, sometimes in needless isolation or without an idea of the bigger picture.  Nonetheless, I do think its useful for “newbies.”  I wanted to give you a sense both of the outlines of the field AND the meta-cognitive practice of (inter)disciplinary construction itself.

5)      I did warn you that this would be one of the more difficult readings.  Future readings will run the gamut, though.  Some will be frustratingly superficial, others frustratingly detailed (ie, tedious); some will be fun, others, not so much (depending on your definition of fun—personally, I enjoy a bit of difficulty).  All were chosen because they represent (in my mind) an important issue or case study that will shed light on the issues surrounding literacy and technology.  We’re all readers here, but expect to be challenged.  That’s how we grow as scholars.

Other cool topics this week: fan fiction, the sensual pleasures of books, marginal notes…more to come as I keep reading!

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