I rediscovered short stories several years ago when I began working for a nonprofit called Books@Work. During the Thursday lunch hour, every other week for eight weeks, I discussed Steinbeck stories with employees at a manufacturing company in Lorain County, Ohio. The time commitment was minimal and thus compatible with my job, eight miles away, as an associate professor of English at Oberlin College. I had recently received tenure; I had the freedom and desire to try something new.
Books@Work has been organizing professor-led literature seminars in the workplace since 2009. It does not pitch itself as a continuing-education program—an opportunity to go back to school and learn about the Romantic poets or Jacobean drama from a professor with an engaging lecture style. The activity I was called upon to perform largely resembled what I would do in the undergraduate English classroom: pose questions; attempt to linger over a puzzling moment or detail; steer the conversation toward insights. There was one crucial difference, however. My role was to prompt participants to think about their own lives and share with each other how they related to these stories personally. This was the very thing I diligently avoided at Oberlin. The personal is the Pandora’s box in the college English classroom—opening it releases all the evils of oversharing.
I started teaching for Books@Work around the same time that Oberlin began to engage more openly in the national conversation about the imperiled liberal arts, at risk because of demographic shifts (decline in the population of high school seniors), stagnating middle-class incomes, soaring college tuition and shrinking employment opportunities. Even elite liberal-arts institutions need to promise parents more concrete goods than soul-building and intellectual exploration. “Defense of the humanities” is now a subgenre of the proliferating “defense of higher education” genre.
Getting involved with Books@Work was a through-the-looking-glass experience. I was working for a nonprofit that was successfully selling a liberal-arts-style product to mainly private-sector companies, companies that were paying for their employees to engage in the open-ended, exploratory discussions that are the trademark of the humanities classroom. What’s more, the founders of this nonprofit were enormously successful management consultants. They developed the idea of organizing professor-led literature seminars in the workplace because they believed that sitting around a table swapping reactions to stories has a potentially transformative effect on the individual employee and on the relationships among individual employees.
These people from the corporate world, the world of management theory, the world whose discourse academics accuse of invading higher education, have a kind of enthusiasm for and faith in the English-department classroom that I would have blushed to share with my Oberlin colleagues for fear of sounding naïve or reactionary. In describing the value of the program, Books@Work invokes the “human experience.” Discussing literature, on this view, allows people to become rounded characters that go beyond their specific workplace function. And since employees who are open to new ideas and eager to collaborate provide a better-quality product or service, human flourishing can come together with the bottom line.
While higher-education administrators borrow language from management theory, these former management consultants were borrowing language from the humanities and liberal arts. What does this chiasmus portend for the future of higher education? Whatever the future holds for the liberal arts, the way people from outside the university (still) idealize the humanities seminar reminds us of the value of what we do. It can also turn us into an uncanny version of ourselves—familiar but also strange.
At the manufacturing company where I taught my first Books@Work seminar, the employees wanted to read something that involved minimal biweekly assignments. My liaison proposed Steinbeck short stories. I gladly agreed, delighted to have an assignment that filled gaps in my own imaginary canon.
To allay my apprehension about the first meeting, I tried to picture what the scene might look like. The “multipurpose” room where we met turned out to be close to my mind’s-eye rendering: Formica tables, industrial carpeting, recessed dimmable lighting, walls and tables slidable, the chairs stackable. The new classrooms at my college were versions of this—another indication of the intersection of values in the liberal arts and corporate worlds. In the seminar rooms of both institutions, metaphor and matter converge: flexible thinking and flexible space, spaces that are flippable and disruptable.
While I could imagine the corporate seminar room, I did not anticipate the intermediary steps between arriving and entering the conference room: figuring out the right place to park and the correct entrance; explaining to the receptionist the purpose of my visit; studying the promotional literature of the company while waiting to be taken to the seminar room by a person who, when she turned up, explained she was filling in for the person who had originally been assigned this task; trying to memorize the complex system of hallways for the next time while making small talk. The nervousness I felt the first day before getting to know the group was compounded by the unfamiliarity of the workplace protocols. Though I had read the precise instructions many times, I could not seem to remember the details. Once in the conference room, I felt like a traveling salesman lugging my wares—the book and notes in my bag—but also like a small shopkeeper stripped of the counter behind which so much of the dignity of her profession consists. All the ways professors can indulge a need for control over their classes—room, size of the group, lighting, equipment—I had no say over.
As it turned out, the participants (roughly twenty of them) were interesting, receptive and kind. I worried at first about what they might expect me to say about a story’s historical context or the facts of an author’s life, but my job was simply to encourage them to gain insights about themselves and the story. The act of coming in the room, taking off my credentials and putting them on the chair beside me like a coat had a kind of ritual importance. My vesture conveyed their employer’s investment in the experience, my divesture the primacy of their experiences.
In the first session we discussed Steinbeck’s “Johnny Bear”—a story about the seductions and perils of dredging up small town secrets. The title character possesses uncanny powers of mimicry. He eavesdrops on intimate, illicit conversations, and in exchange for whiskey at the local bar, he reproduces them with the accuracy of a recording device.
With help from the Books@Work liaison I came armed with a few personal, life-relevance questions. Yet it was hard to resist my usual approach to class discussion: translating a theory about the story into seemingly open-ended questions and thereby subtly guiding students towards an interpretation—my interpretation—of the story. This approach appealed to the technical writers in the room, who self-identified as having been English majors and felt at home in the ritual of interpretation. They traced patterns and zeroed in on objects with symbolic portent.
Yet except for drawing attention to puns (unfailingly a crowd pleaser), my analysis of the story’s formal elements killed the mood, eliciting polite nods and the dreaded deathly silence. I had much more success with my other impulse, which was to gossip about the story, comparing our experiences of shock at the ending’s twist, speculating on the identity of the tragic heroine’s lover. I talked in impersonal terms about living in a small town and everyone knowing your business, and asked the participants if they had had similar experiences. We talked about the human need to build idols only to tear them down.
I left that first meeting feeling like I had just binged on Amazon reviews. My encounter with the confidence of the lay reader hinted broadly at the irrelevance of academic literary studies for the reading public. In the room, as on Amazon, was a vibrant, bustling community of readers who opine in blissful ignorance of the discipline of literary studies and don’t care a whit about the MLA. The Books@Work participants took for granted the value of literature and reading, but they also felt entitled to strong opinions about literary quality. They believed in the story enough to speculate about the motives of characters, but were quick to spot moments that felt contrived or unrealistic. I struggled to keep up with the conversation’s pace and the variety of responses, and to adapt to its rhythm—a steady patter of commentary and then suddenly, for no clear reason, silence.
At the second meeting we discussed “The Chrysanthemums,” a short story about an encounter between a traveling handyman and a no-longer-young woman who lives on a farm in the Salinas Valley with her husband. The handyman drives onto the farm in a wagon advertising his services. Elisa is in her flower garden digging around chrysanthemum shoots for any threatening pests. At first, she resists his offer to sharpen scissors or beat the dents out of pots. She can do both herself. Her economy and self-sufficiency seem impregnable. He looks around for a way in and spots the chrysanthemums. He asks her about them and she thrills to the topic. He stumbles upon a wonderfully apt simile to describe the flower, surprised himself, perhaps, at the power of his comparison: “like a quick puff of colored smoke.” He has her now. His having understood the beauty of the flower she identifies with brings her into focus; to find just the right words for the things she loves makes her trust him. He maneuvers the conversation to a fictional lady in a neighboring farm who has a beautiful garden but no chrysanthemums. Elisa, too eagerly, gives him shoots to bring to her, and explains exactly how they must be planted and cared for, thrilled at the opportunity to cast her gifts beyond the narrow boundaries of her world.
Although he tells the story in the third person, Steinbeck refrains from communicating the characters’ thoughts. Their emotions are displaced onto physical descriptions. After her encounter with the tinker, Elisa behaves in ways that are difficult for her husband to understand. He marvels at the mystery of her mood and physical transformation. He is struck by her sitting on the porch in her nicest clothes. Overwhelmed, he can only resort to an unsatisfactory compliment: “Why—why, Elisa. You look so nice!” His colloquial “why,” expressive of surprise, also captures the question at the heart of his compliment. Elisa wants something more specific: “What do you mean by ‘nice’?” A familiar domestic exchange becomes the vehicle for capturing the transformative nature of her encounter with the tinker. Henry notices the change, but does not know how to articulate what he sees: “Henry blundered on. ‘I don’t know. I mean you look different, strong and happy.’” (Poor Henry. The men in the seminar could relate to him as he navigates the perilous landscape of female vanity; they had experienced a woman’s irritable desire for precisely the right grade of compliment.)
That strength and happiness abandons Elisa in the last line of the story. Sitting in a horse-drawn carriage with her husband on their way to town, she spots a black speck on the side of the road. The dream of her gift to the tinker taking root somewhere has been dashed, and she attempts to hide her reaction from her husband: “She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman.”
Some of the participants resented the story for its ending, which manages to be both bleak and enigmatic. You cannot imagine how Elisa will face the rest of her life. I suggested we go around the table, each person sharing a question. I listened for the kind that could go somewhere: “What I want to know is, what is her relationship like with her husband?” More pointedly, the oldest woman in the room asked: “Do she and her husband have sex?” I could build on these and ask broader questions, addressed to the whole group: Why is marriage such a fertile topic? Why do you think we have to piece together clues about this marriage, as opposed to the third-person narrator telling us about it directly? What indicates Elisa has unsatisfied desires? What does Elisa want? We went to the text to look for answers. Seeing grownup engineers, HR managers and sales reps point to this or that line in the story to defend a claim was weirdly thrilling and touching. It embarrassed me slightly to see these people with real jobs taking what I do—engaging with fiction—seriously.
I was also on the alert for comments that could lead to awkwardness and conversational dead-ends: “I hate the husband; he reminds me of my ex-husband,” one woman said with live rage in her voice. No one quite knew how to respond. To the rest of us the husband seemed befuddled but basically like a nice guy. Ex-husbands, I sensed, were dangerous territory—that spot in someone’s history where the personal could not crystallize into anecdote but remained in a state of molten anger and pain. I had to think fast before this comment killed the mood in the room, but I did not want to alienate or embarrass this woman who had taken an emotional risk: “Is there something about the blankness of the husband that makes him an everyman figure?” “Might he stand in for the reader?” (Rather than your ex-husband?) In tacking from one comment to the other, the skill I most needed was tact.
Steinbeck puts his finger on how our strength and vulnerability spring from the same soil. This, I felt, was the major insight of the story. Desire, a desperate need to give the world what we have before we die, makes us as powerful as it makes us vulnerable. The chance, fleeting encounter with the tinker gave her the gift of integration—sides of herself that had been opposed were united.
One year and three seminars later, I discussed short stories from Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection Interpreter of Maladies with doctors and members of the staff of a veteran’s hospital in downtown Cleveland. Of all my Books@Work assignments, the hospital felt the most remote from the Oberlin classroom. The visitor hallways, lobbies, atriums and waiting areas were as crowded as an airport during peak flying hours. Living and working in a small town, I don’t see many new faces, and the ones I see are mostly college age—smooth canvases upon which a provisional identity (and gender) has been expertly or inexpertly painted. I was struck by the faces I saw, the faces drawn by experience and pain. It was evidently both a community center and a hospital, a place to get coffee and dialysis. The combination of suffering and solidarity, the evidence of misery and poverty, and the strangely joyous feel, were overwhelming. When I finally found my way to the “rec room,” I blinked back tears that I hoped were not just sentimental.
We began with the eponymous story, which recounts the visit of an Indian-American family, Mr. and Mrs. Das and their three children, to their ancestral homeland. They are given a tour of temples by a local tour guide, Mr. Kapasi.
I was now practiced enough in this new mode of teaching to ask directly personal questions: “The central character, Mr. Kapasi, feels invisible in his job. Have any of you ever felt invisible?” The answers varied more than I had anticipated. Some I could predict: “I feel invisible when the doctor is in the room; when he leaves, the patient looks to me for comfort and help.” One man offered that being invisible allowed him to resolve conflicts between parties. We discussed good and bad ways to be invisible, which in turn became a conversation about Mr. Kapasi’s complex relationship to the tourists he drives around. It is not a simple story of his existence and humanity being ignored in their rapacious, or dutiful, desire to consume an exotic culture. He also, a participant pointed out, looks at them through the rearview mirror, judging, analyzing. The story is told in the third person, but from his point of view. I had learned to be strategic with formalist analysis, lest it cause participants to second-guess their insights. I only discussed the how of the stories if it advanced our comprehension of the what. Understanding the issue of Mr. Kapasi’s invisibility required addressing point of view. To be safe, I ironized the terms “point of view” and “free indirect discourse” (third-person narration that slips in and out of a character’s consciousness) as the technical jargon of my trade, just as their jobs come freighted with terminology.
Participants clearly felt at home diagnosing human problems and behaviors, perhaps unsurprisingly given where they worked. The psychologists in the room were quick to spot characters who had “boundary issues.” This is the kind of thing students in my undergraduate classes tend to say if they happen also to be taking Psych 101. (I have received many an essay on Sense and Sensibility and the five stages of grief.) I do and do not want to deprive students of their sense of triumph in finding the master key, the language from another discipline that forces literature to surrender its secrets, or, more accurately, to surrender its right to secrets. What insight do we gain, I asked, by translating the impulsive action of the character into a diagnosis? What exactly are boundary issues? (I genuinely wanted to know.) The other participants were not seduced by the psychologists’ clinical terminology and seemed even slightly annoyed by the hint of professional smugness that attended the diagnosis.
The characters in the Lahiri stories cross a boundary sacred in modern culture. Strangers penetrate the family circle, or husbands and wives stray beyond it. The participants took infidelity as a fact of adult life, part of its messiness, the sight of which we attempt to spare the young. (“It’s complicated.”)
With the participants I pushed on a different boundary—the one between fiction and reality. At a crucial moment in the story, the narrator mentions Mr. Kapasi’s Russian grammar book. Chekhov, I remembered, was a doctor, someone well acquainted with the varieties of human suffering. Each patient is a short story. I asked them what they listened for when they met with new patients. Did they think of their work with patients as interpretive? The nurses and the doctors described how patient care involves asking questions that will help them piece together the lifestyles of their patients, the larger context that explains specific ailments. Like a text, patients often withhold information.
To friends and colleagues I jokingly referred to Books@Work as my side hustle. It did not interfere with my work at Oberlin, nor, at first, did it influence the way I taught literature there. I simply had two different ways of talking about books. In the undergraduate classroom I could engage unapologetically in what in the business we call “close reading” without contextualizing or ironizing the discipline. And in Books@Work I could relinquish control and enjoy the immediacy of the conversations.
After the stint at the VA hospital, I experimented with teaching the same stories—“Johnny Bear,” “The Chrysanthemums” and “Interpreter of Maladies”—to Oberlin undergraduates. The course promised students an introduction to the advanced study of literature, by which I meant an initiation into the academic discipline of literary study.
These stories were now haunted. I could not introduce them to undergraduates without memories of my adult students. I could picture their faces and expressions and almost feel the urgency and warmth in the multipurpose room. For that hour stolen from our normal work days we were collectively under fiction’s spell; we shared the thrilling sense that an insight about a character, or even the design of a story, might move someone in the group to change her life.
“Because I had children I did not pursue the career path I really wanted.” The woman who said this looked to be in her fifties. Her voice was soft but her tone was flat and matter-of-fact, with a striking absence of uplift. She did not rush to assure us and herself that it was all worth it in the end. Several months later, I ran into somebody else from that seminar and learned she had left the company.
Although their lives were not long enough for regret about roads not taken, I wanted my undergraduates to experience something similar: I wanted them to escape their roles as timid or arrogant consumers of a literary tradition that stood outside of them; I wanted them to offer reactions without fear of sounding naïve; I wanted them to take the stories personally.
What is the purpose of the academic study of literature? I was not sure any more. As I stood before my undergraduate students, I had never felt more filled with love for what I do, nor more uncertain about how to do it.
I was experiencing the kind of disorientation that Jonathan Lear, a philosopher of psychoanalysis, has suggested is essential for getting good at being human. His phrase for this experience, the “erotic uncanny,” captures its power to make you fall in love with and long for the very thing you thought you already were. Lear’s uncanny is Freudian—an experience, ranging from the disorienting to the terrifying, of encountering something at once strange and familiar. His erotic is Platonic—a longing for unity. In the vacillation between disorientation and unity, we are able to experience a form of critical detachment not already built into our identity or activity.
Lear points to the example of a teacher. Teachers regularly reflect on their pedagogy, or many do. They think about how they could be better lecturers, or discussion leaders, graders, etc. This is a feature of the “practical identity,” or social role, of being a teacher. Precisely for this reason, it cannot actually function as a way to get outside the role. It can become self-punishing and, for all its scrupulous evaluation of one’s performance, a moral blindness. Being a good human according to this (Kantian) ethical model means living up to the social roles that you have adopted—an arduous process, as he points out, and not actually one that leads to human flourishing. The experience of disorientation Lear is describing, however, simultaneously takes you outside the role and strands you in the middle of it, struck anew by its beauty and importance, but unsure how to proceed.
Midstream in the semester, I stopped teaching as if my Oberlin students would go on to graduate school—a fiction I had maintained well past my belief in it because it spared me having to answer difficult questions about the value of the discipline. I thought, instead, about how I could help them cultivate a relationship to reading that would enrich their lives.
I did not abandon my commitment to teaching students the skill of literary analysis—how to look closely and patiently at a literary work for a sustained period of time until insights rise to the surface and patterns reveal themselves. But the activity of close reading no longer functioned simply as a way to teach the methods and rigors of a discipline. Rather, it was a critical skill and a life skill—a way to enrich experiences both of literature and of the world. What I sought to learn and to teach was integration. Living well required close reading real-life experiences; reading well, in the sense of a deepened knowledge of the formal properties of texts, required personal identification. Read your life and live in books.
I was newly attuned to the possibility of autobiography imbuing a student’s comment. One woman in the class spoke with cool authority about how the tinker “is playing” Elisa. She gets it, I thought. A note in her voice made me wonder about her story. To reclaim the conversation about James Joyce’s “The Dead” from a few (male) students versed in the tendencies of literary modernism, I ventured the taboo question: “Do any of you relate to Gabriel?” The hero of Joyce’s story, Gabriel, is a literary critic who displays a striking incapacity for empathy and self-displacement. I had puzzled over the contrast between Gabriel’s solipsism and the narrator’s protean ability to slip into Gabriel’s consciousness by means of free indirect discourse. One student raised her hand immediately. She had not spoken yet that class. “I can relate to feeling stuck inside my own head.” Other students saw themselves in Gabriel’s awkwardness, his being out of step with other people—unable to strike the right tone because he’s always overthinking social encounters.
I was prone to impromptu sweeping declarations that semester: “You all are in the coming-of-age novels of your lives,” I explained to the eighteen undergraduates in the room. “You look forward to futures in which the big narrative questions related to work, love, geographic locations will be answered. The short story comes after the coming-of-age novel. Its defining formal feature is shortness. The proximity of the center to the ending and the beginning allows the stress to fall in the middle. It works best when the situation of the reader mirrors the situation of the characters: strangers meeting in a landscape sparely but expertly sketched, who will part a few pages later after a riddling encounter and wonder, ‘What happened back there?’ Their life stories seem to hang in the balance. The characters place impossibly high demands on each other: make my life make sense.”
One student, more eager to impress than flatter, commented that my theory seemed autobiographical.
Art credit: Mernet Larsen, courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York