Thursday, January 12, 2012

Thoughts on a Vocab Habit

This is for all the wordy people.  Don't let the word haters get you down.  Don't let them stage an intervention to break you of your vocab habit.  It's good for you, and they should be able to see that. 

In this month off from schooling and teaching, in the absence of my esteemed English grad student colleagues, I've been dropping some big words here and there.  They don't fall into place quite so well when you don't have a captive audience of officemates who use all the same words.  We get excited when someone says "aplomb" for God's sake.  (And one day a couple of us even took pains to look up the language of origin for that one, so we could enjoy it more fully.  With aplomb even.)

I've come to a sort of conclusion that as you use more words, longer words, and more discipline specific words, you just don't hear them anymore.  Or you expect that other people know them, because you've known them for so damn long.  This not hearing one's self can happen with any jargon.  Hank Hill probably talks to people in propane terms they can't sort out.  A doctor might use all kinds of medical terminology at home while his kids just roll their eyes.  But we in English, our thing is words! 

So, how does that make our jargon spouting okay?  Words are what our jargon is about.  And we love all kinds of them.  So the objects of our jargon, instead of being some industry specific doodads that no one else knows about or ever needs to care about, are already all around us (and you, and anyone who speaks or reads).  Perhaps a plastics manufacturer could say the same thing.  But we don't consume plastics the way we consume books and culture.

So if we use a big word on you, it is a compliment.  We think you know what we're saying.  We think you're smart.

We are not, contrary to popular belief, trying to make you feel stupid.  Nor are we always trying to show off.  These things, they just come out of us.  We don't intend to be showy, offensive, or obfuscatory.  (See, there it goes again.) How about this:  If we are being otherwise reasonable, but use a word you don't understand, you can ask what it means, or say something friendly like "I'm not sure what you mean."  We'll probably even apologize for our wordiness.  But yelling at us to "SPEAK ENGLISH!" just won't do.  We could ask the same of you, if that's your attitude.  That's right.

I recently caused some kind of offense (whatever kind is caused by non-offensive words) when I used "discourse" and "philosophy" in a non-academic conversation.  I shouldn't have to apologize for that.  Nor should I be made out to be Ms. Bombastic for uttering more than three syllables at a breath.  None of us should.  Don't kick the habit.

Now I'm not saying that we who study English forget how to code-switch.  I'm sure some intellectuals in all fields forget how to talk to their mothers or to the garbage man, but most of us don't strike up a conversation about hermeneutics with the latter or tell the former she's looking "pulchritudinous" today.

I'm also not saying there aren't actual living sesquipedalians (people who use big words just to use big words) out there.  In fact many of them probably reside in the English and Philosophy departments.  But those windbags are the minority.   That's a great word -- windbag.

By the way I totally know what hermeneutics means now, and it's lost all its mystique for me.  Not knowing a word can give it so many dimensions!  Even half knowing a word can be fun, because then you can try it out.  What the hell, right?  Someone who didn't quite understand "empower" turned it into a word for women's issues, and it used to be something only the friggin' Pope could do.

So there you have my attitude on not knowing a word.  Just because we like to use the biggun's doesn't mean we have all of them in our personal arsenals.  No one does!  But if I hear one from a friend or read one in a book, I won't demand a sorry substitute.  I'll look it up.  I'll ask what it means.  I'll probably try it out on you tomorrow.  And not because I think you're stupid, or because I want you to think I'm smart.  It's just a healthy habit of mine.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Slough of Despond

    In his PMLA article “The Evolution of Literary Study, 1883-1983,” fittingly published in the centennial issue of the “industry” journal for the study of literature, Karl Kroeber attempts to describe changes in literary study since the university model brought about its systematization.  He distinguishes between scholarship in literature (the study of texts and their histories) and literary intellect (the “timeless” theory and criticism about texts), and discusses how these two approaches to literary study are somewhat at odds.  Criticism is the approach most valued by university hiring committees since the 1980s, despite its lack of practical value when compared with our ever-evolving, ever-improving scholarly tools.  Kroeber advocates placing a higher value on literary study such as textual studies and biographical studies, arguing that even the most robust theories may be passing fads, while excellent scholarship will always give us some ground to stand on, no matter our critical approach.

    From the start, Kroeber’s approach to his subject reveals his sense of humor, and he acknowledges that his attempt at painting the picture of the last hundred years of literary study will be mediocre at best.  As a teacher of mostly undergraduate courses who mostly writes about Wordsworth, he doesn’t consider himself a member of the higher echelons of the literary studies club, or of any trendy theory crowd.  He wonders why the MLA approached him to write such a history for their hundredth-year issue.  “I was appalled by the invitation to write this essay,” is how the essay begins (326).  He has set the tone.

     Kroeber prefaces his discussion of what goes on in literary study by calling the MLA (and the profession of studying literature) a bureaucracy, and he equates it with other types of bureaucracies, such as those found in the medical professions.  In order for the bureaucracy to function, it needs a hierarchy.  He spends a few paragraphs on unflattering descriptions and analogies (in PMLA no less!) about the functioning of this bureaucracy, and calls on members of it to recognize “how increasingly we function as a profession only bureaucratically” (327).  Specialized interests are commoditized by forums and panels, all exacting dues and hiring out for speakers in tangential topics.  Kroeber laments what the study of literature becomes under this bureaucratic system -- in the era of professionalization, “power, prestige, and professional virtuosity disguise the professional's persistent trivializing of human experience” (327).  All these things we do with literature (in 1984 anyway) are causing us to lose focus on the literature itself, and making the work we do less and less approachable by scholars or students of any other specialization.  Who wants to read PMLA?  Kroeber doesn’t. (Neither do I.)

    Next Kroeber makes his distinction (which is a pretty widely recognized distinction) between scholarship in literature and literary criticism.  The first, he says, is evolving all the time, always building upon past work, always discovering more about history, and always bringing about good revisions to the canon.  Because of literary scholarship we have Blake as one of our Romantic “big six,” and we have moved Swinburne to the margins.  As this scholarship piles up, we start to “take for granted a vast apparatus of bibliographies, compendia of criticism, checklists, catalogs of library holdings, reference works, and many scrupulously edited texts”(328)  that make continued scholarship much easier than it was a century ago.  As more and more is discovered, histories and biographies become more accurate, fueling new discoveries.  Textual scholarship (which “real” critics treat as “a slough of despond” [329]) keeps step with scholarship on literature, and studies of the book fuel debates on everything from editorial copy-text to authorial intention.  After expounding the virtues and successes of modern literary scholarship, Kroeber turns to the problem: “Young Ph.D.’s” as he calls them, are not trained to be scholars.  They are trained to be critics – specialized critics.  So despite scholarship’s steady march forward, “our discipline now decays intellectually.”  We have the mounds of scholarship, and no one wants to work with them. 

    Those young Ph.D.’s who do want to work with scholarly materials lack the skills, and instead write heaps of criticism without actually consulting much of anything literary except the primary texts themselves.  Kroeber claims that we have impoverished our critical vocabulary by reaching out to various only tangentially related disciplines – sociology, linguistics, psychology – and critics now borrow so much from the sciences, all the while claiming to be doing something “creative,” that the criticism (or, theory) they produce ultimately has little to do with “literary study.”  So, his practical concern about where literary study has ended up by 1984 is that there will soon be no jobs for the young Ph.D.’s.  They are either incompetent at actually studying literature, or if they have managed to focus on their literary scholarship, they will not get hired by the committee looking for the latest theory buzzwords (or, to update this, cultural criticism buzzwords) on the C.V.

    While Kroeber brings his argument about scholarship vs. criticism to bear on a very practical issue (and a vital one, if we all wish to continue to have jobs and a department of our own), he does so within a framework of discussing how literary study has gotten where it is today, even if part of the “study” is in a sad state.  That’s what PMLA wanted him to do – a history of literary study.  But Kroeber is limited by his own knowledge of the subject, his lack of involvement in any of the “new” types of literary study, and the time period the PMLA team wants him to cover – the hundred years that the MLA has existed!  It is telling that they did not ask him to delve further into literary history.  No literary study existed before it was sanctioned by the MLA?  This limitation is noted in the title of the article, and can’t be blamed on Kroeber.  He gives the dates he is covering: 1883-1983.  That is all that is required really.  Like any good bibliographer does, you have to put a cap on the thing somewhere, or it will not fit between the covers of a book, much less a journal.  The other limitations that stem from Kroeber’s lack of specialized knowledge about literary history are his own limitations, but for some reason the MLA chose him to write this. 

Perhaps Kroeber was chosen precisely because he is an outsider on the history of literary study.  He can give a broader picture of what it looks like from someone who does it in the way most professors do it: teaching undergraduates, and writing on a period of canonical literature. Kroeber does well to call attention to the limitations of the article, calling it an “amateurish foray” into literary study (336), and ultimately brings his argument home to advocate for teaching literature to small classes as the saving grace of the English department.  If we try not to “fret” about the bureaucracy in which we must teach and write, and if we try not to jump on every theoretical bandwagon, we will get back to teaching literature in that way that supposedly helps our students' critical thinking, and all those other brain functions that can be magically turned on by reading a book – the reason the other departments send all their majors over here for at least a class or two. 

    So while Kroeber ends up in a very specific place at the end of his essay, and fails to give a sweeping overview of, or a definite shape to, the century he is supposed to be describing, he at least gives the PMLA reader something to think about when it comes to dealing with the legacies of that century, and deciding whether to turn away from them, embrace them, or count them as irrelevant to the very practical work we do in classrooms, and as scholars of texts.

Work Cited
Kroeber, Karl. “The Evolution of Literary Study, 1883-1983.” PMLA 99.3 (1984): 326-39. Print.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

McGann’s Roman Example

Jerome McGann’s The Beauty of Inflections is a collection of essays and readings that attempt to outline a program for the re-historicization of poems.  McGann’s readings of Keats, Coleridge, and other Romantic poets show how to historicize, while the broader essays give theoretical justifications for the program, or show how it might benefit literary study.  Toward the end of this program (the last chapter before the conclusion) McGann chooses to include an essay on “Rome and its Romantic Significance.”  In the introduction he had told us that these essays were carefully selected and ordered in the book, sometimes out of chronological sequence, to best make the argument for historicization. Why include an essay on a place and civilization that seems antithetical to anything Romantic? (Despite the obvious shared root in the city’s name, what is Romantic about the civic-life-loving Romans?) McGann uses Rome as one of his best examples of the poet’s ability to Romantically idealize almost anything, and discusses how Rome’s long and tumultuous history lends itself to embellishment and longing in the imagination of the Romantically-minded.

Romantics have a notorious aversion to cities and cities’ trappings, yet Rome was somehow the “one city that escaped the judgment of Romanticism” (313). McGann names Winckellmann the first Romantic to visit Rome, arriving when Rome had just come out of yet another fall of some “civilization.” It was a beautiful, empty place of ruins, ripe for the imagination’s taking, ripe for yet another birth. Winckelmann “presided over its birth” and saw to it that it was a Romantic one. It is because of Rome’s peculiar position as a city of rich history and a city of empty ruins that the Romantics, McGann argues, were able to “discover the limits of their ideological experience” (314).  The poets had found a blank canvas, but under the ruined surface were millennia of possibilities for what Rome could be.  No matter that none of these possibilities suited the poets, for it was the remembrance of Rome that could easily be Romanticized, painted with the imagery of the city in its beautiful desolation, desolation that was just waiting for melancholy and nostalgia to give it an afterlife. So, the ruins and their shadows inspired poetry, and even though Winckelmann’s Roman project was really a historical one (full of discoveries that somehow only fueled the nostalgia rather than grounding Rome’s new identity on the facts of its un-Romantic history), portrayals and conceptions of Rome going into the 19th century were those of the “Everlasting Rome, not the Rome which is replaced by another every decade” (Geothe as quoted in McGann 316). 

McGann’s example of a Romantic Rome shows how far the Romantic ideology can go in conceiving of a place, a time, or even a city as something that reflects the Romantic's inward turn, his longing for some imagined place of the past, and his veneration for creativity and the individual.  Rome is the least ideal place and possesses the least ideal histories for those particular kinds of daydreams.  (Those daydreams spawned some great poetry, for sure, but the Romans of antiquity or any time before Winckelmann would have called them daydreams.)  I don’t know if this essay proves any of the major tenets of McGann’s beliefs about historicizing literature, but it does provide some insight into how the Romantic mind works, and a great example of what we still mean when we talk about “Romanticizing” something.  The fact that a city such as Rome can fuel the same imagination that longs for pastoral solitude, freedom of expression, and freedom from religion and civic life, seems surprising, even if we already know that humans, Romantic or not, tend to envision “everlasting” places and cultures, usually picturing them in some conflated recollection of every iteration, glossing over the troubling bits, and conveniently forgetting (or valorizing anew, in a new language befitting the contemporary climate of nostalgia) the parts that don’t fit the ideology. Winckelmann, Goethe, Chateaubriand, and the rest, are interested in history – real, factual history, full of troubling events likes those happening in France – but that does not stop them from deeply Romanticizing Rome.

Only in Stendhal (who McGann comes to at the end of the essay) do we see the movement reach the “limits” McGann had promised to show us early on.  The other thinkers and poets “refused to part with their most cherished forms of Romantic illusion and displacement,” but Stendhal finds these ways of viewing history “finally wanting” (333). Stendhal exhibits the despair of losing Rome, or anyplace for that matter, but not the desperate nostalgia of his contemporaries (331).
Perhaps Stendhal is the example McGann wants to leave us with, even though much of the essay is spent on those most charmed by their illusions.  Stendhal’s Romanticism allows for a more realistic view of history and the loss of civilizations without imagining all of history as something preferable to the present day, something longed after through a misty veil of Romantic embellishments. Stendhal’s historical perception of Rome is one that teaches lessons (as McGann thinks history should), one that reminds us of what we should not forget, and allows us a rich poetic outlet, through its well-known histories and literary tropes.  Perhaps Stendhal’s view of Rome is in many ways like McGann’s view of literary study.  We learn from its losses (textual or otherwise), we lament the losses, and we do not forget the losses.  Instead we record them, we seek inspiration from them, and we look forward to the possibilities of variants, interpretations, and meanings that a future of continued losses surely holds.

Work Cited
McGann, Jerome J. The Beauty of Inflections. Oxford UP: Oxford, 1985.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Justifying Critical Outliers in the NATC

If we were to leaf through the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, we would not be surprised by many of the early entries.  Plato, Sydney, Wordsworth… In fact, the first two-thirds of the book include selections from poets, literary critics, philosophers, linguists, and other folks who are easily at least tangentially related to what we think of when we think of “theory.”  Most of these critics and theorists have at least one foot firmly planted in some humanities sort of discipline.  While the text does not claim to be a collection of “literary theories” per se, there is an expectation that the selections will somehow all come back to books, or philosophy, or something with which students who are interested in theory are comfortable.  Toward the end of the book, we might start to become more than a little disoriented as theorist’s names (and the related names their headnote writers drop) become less familiar, never heard of.  When we begin to read the headnote, and discover that this “theorist” doesn’t do what we thought was “theory” at all, but instead studies the behaviors of scientists in their labs, the befuddlement is complete.

Bruno Latour is one of these critical outliers. Situated between Barbara Johnson’s reading of Billy Budd and a bit of Martha Nussbaum’s philosophy that draws on poetry to make its claims, Latour the “science studies” guy seems out of place.  But while Latour himself is somewhat atypical of an NATC canonized theorist, his headnote does most of the things the typical headnotes do, and even stands as something of a model for how the editors typically deal with an outlier’s headnote.  Or how they typically deal with anything that might leave the reader wondering if they should ask for their $75 back.  The Norton rule:  Justify, justify, justify!

The introductory paragraph gives Latour’s overview, a thinker in “science studies” and “technoscience.”  The overview introduction is in the style of most headnotes, but in Latour’s overview the justifications begin almost immediately.  Headnotes in the NATC often contain justifications, even for critics long recognized as major voices.  These usually fall at the end of the headnote, after some critical objections are brought to light.  “Even though critic Y debunks everything critic X says, critic X is still important because…” is the typical formula.  (My prof calls this the “Newsweek ending.”) But with Latour the headnote writer can’t wait for the conclusion to get the justification, because we are already boggled by “technoscience.”  The writer assures us (we who are sweating and thinking "Oh shit, he's talking about science!?") that “the consequences go beyond disciplinary boundaries” and “illuminate several important concepts in cultural theory” (2277).  Key terms are dropped, that bring us back to literature and its tangents.  Phew.  While Latour’s brand of social constructivism can certainly be seen unfolding in gender studies and other lately recognized, literature-related schools of theory, the lengthy list of schools in the overview helps drive this point home.  Look at all the -isms he’s influenced!  He belongs in this book. (Or, You are not thinking that he does not belong in this book.  Norton mind-trick.)

The biography of Latour is typical of a headnote’s second paragraph.  No justification is given here, but a brief history of scholarship and positions held.  This holds true for some other entries, but a more literary scholar may have had more information his or her accomplishments and publications at each institution related in that paragraph.  The next section of the headnote explicates one of Latour’s major works, one that is not included in the volume.  Terms like "Actor Network Theory" come up, and the doubt may begin to seep back in to those of us who are still wondering what Bruno is doing here.  The justification is simple -- he weighs in on the nature/nurture dichotomy, along with other “monstrous” binaries that contemporary theory sometimes seeks to deconstruct.  This may be true, but it is doubtful whether most who use this book will go out and find a copy of Laboratory Life tomorrow, just to see those dichotomies meet their doom.  We have more “literary” sources to go to for that kind of reading.

The next paragraph begins with a list of Latour’s “eclectic and wide-ranging” influences.  Those adjectives are probably meant to keep us on our toes to spot the novelists and critics whom he has read, but the list consists of sociologists, analytical philosophers (that is, the kind who don’t typically write about literature), and linguists (so close!).  In order to get some kind of legacy out of Latour, the headnote author speculates on whom Latour is referring to in his critiques of contemporary social constructivism.  STANLEY FISH and MICHEL FOUCAULT (Latour never mentions either) make it into the note, as theorists who bear “some resemblance” (2278).  Two more all-caps names are listed, and these are his true legacies.  However, they are sociologists and science studies thinkers as well.  Influences and legacies are typical of the headnotes in this book, and reaching to make connections that may or may not be significant is not uncommon either.  An outlier’s headnote exemplifies how far the authors sometimes have to stretch.

The remaining two pages of Latour’s headnote are almost completely given over to explaining his positions as outlined in “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”  Again the author stabs at naming a literary critic whom Latour may or may not be commenting on (Fish), and brings up the dichotomies which we are all supposed to be so appalled by.  If a scientist type can deconstruct them, we will welcome him in, is perhaps the thought there.  The last sentence of the summary of Latour’s theories makes another association for us, by talking about associations: “The work of science studies, and by extension of literary theory as well, is to study associations…” (2278).  What a dumb sentence.  How “by extension” works is not quite clear, but they sure want us to think that science somehow extends into literature, because Latour has made it so!

The final paragraph gives the typical brief NATC overview of critiques of the theorist’s work, ending on the style of justification that has become quite familiar by page 2279: “In spite of the polarized responses he evokes, Latour remains a significant presence in cultural theory for his ingenious attempts to bridge the two-cultures model that divides the humanities from the sciences.”  Perhaps the headnote author should have said that in the first place.  The “[i]n spite of” portion of that sentence is for once not even necessary.  We are not objecting to Latour.  The scientists are.  We just want to know what he’s doing here!  And explaining that Latour helps us with a bridging of scientific and humanities cultures puts him in league with fellows like C.P. Snow and Matthew Arnold.  To some of us, this might be the best kind of justification.  Pointing to a legacy of writers on cyborgs and trans-humans (science, science!) might just befuddle us even more.

I've nothing against Bruno.  My goal here was to give a specific example of how Norton is always justifying things.

Here's a cool article and interview about We Have Never Been Modern.

Here's a blog all about Latour and company, co-authored by my friend Mike Johnduff at Princeton (who is a literature student...maybe Norton can use him as their justification in the 3rd edition of NATC!):

"We Have Never Been Blogging."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cozying up to the NATC

 Don't be put off by the bloodstain on the cover.

When The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism appears on your book list for the first time, you may get a sinking feeling.  If you don’t already have that feeling, then by all means get to sinking.  This tome (guaranteed to be more tome-ly than any text you have purchased to date) is a ten pound, nearly 3000 page monolith that may be the most expensive thing you ever buy as a graduate student in the humanities.  (And if you aren’t a graduate student in the humanities, back away slowly.)  While the NATC may cost you half your monthly TA stipend, and it may endanger your life every time you leap onto the subway with that ponderous weight in your backpack, rest assured that it is a sound investment in your future as a critic and scholar.  I will endeavor to explain why.

First let’s talk about what this book isn’t.  (With all those pages, there will be plenty to say about what it is.)  The NATC is not an introduction to theory, and it is even less an introduction to literary theory.  Notice, “literary” is not even in the title.  And the only place you’ll find “introduction” is in the introduction, which only takes up thirty-some bible-thin pages of the thing.  Though you can’t expect to be prepared for what follows by reading these pages, if you really are new to this theory game then by all means read the introduction!  It is a very cursory discussion of “What is Theory?” and of theory’s current place in literary and cultural studies, followed by an even more cursory wham-bam list of schools and methods in theory.  The schools and methods are probably what you’ve heard of.  Feminists.  Deconstructors.  Cultural critics. Etc.  While these entries are in a sort of chronological order, the descriptions are short and the list format does not help the newbie to understand the relationships between all of these schools and methods.  If you have a true introductory text, the kind with schemas and charts and things, that might be a nice supplement as you wade through the issues and lists.  Donald Keesey’s Contexts for Criticism is a good place to start, and Jonathan Culler’s Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory is even better.  While, in the end, schemas don’t always make perfect sense or allow for the nuances that differentiate certain theories, they are handy when you are in the face of the NATC with no prior exposure to semioticians and linguists, New Critics and Formalists (“What’s the difference?!”)  and their ilk. 

One other feature of the book that could be considered introductory material is each critic’s or theorist’s headnote.  Again, some background is necessary to see how the critics fit together (because now you are dealing with individuals and their thoughts, not over-arching, sometimes nebulous schools), but each headnote can nearly stand alone because of the amount of biographical and critical information there.  Always read the headnote for any reading you have been assigned.  Your professor probably assigned the headnote along with the reading, but if not, read it anyway.  Be the teacher’s pet.  The headnotes do not give away the juicy bits of the selections themselves, but set nicely a reader up for what is to come. 

You will notice, especially at the beginnings and ends of headnotes, that some names appear in ALL CAPS.  This means the person referred to is somewhere in that book, and you should go look them up if you want to know more about the connection between, say, Hegel and Marx.  However, unlike the obvious Hegel-Marx connection, sometimes these associations are tenuous and even dubious.  JAQUES DERRIDA appears in Plato’s headnote, but we cannot learn much about Plato from Derrida.  Derrida deconstructs a Platonic dialog, so he made it in.  They even go so far as to include the relatively minor dialog in Plato’s section, to justify the nudging into the twentieth century (they want you to look in the back of the book!).  If they really wanted to throw in a responder to Plato, MARTIN HEIDEGGER would have been more apt.  But he’s not cool anymore.  So when you read these ALL CAPS names, just be sure to have a few grains of salt handy.

While NATC is by no means an introductory text, it is a hit parade of works that you may be assigned in your early years of advanced literary study.  All of the biggies are in there: Laugh of the Medusa, Poetics, Biographia Literaria, Of Grammatology, and so on.  You will have nearly everything you need.  They even put them in a sort of historical order for you, by year of the critic’s birth.  Also included, however, are some tidbits you’ve probably never heard of.  The newer stuff follows the current trends in literary theory as observed by the editors.  Some of it will get nixed from the next edition, and some will be immortalized either by its own merit or by simply having a place in the NATC.

Of course, every time a young upstart gets his or her gender theory article included, some hoary old fellow will be shaved off the other end of the book to make room.  The early criticism, therefore, is the choicest cuts.  You can think of the book as an open faced sandwich.  The aged meats are on top and the fresh pieces of bread are on the bottom.  It remains to be seen which breads will soak up the juices of history and remain edible, and which will turn to soggy mush.  While the quality of these later selections is mixed, with the latest edition you will at least stay on top of the trends in literary theory.  But if you are in a theory class just for fun (what?), or if you are a stalwart Classicist or Romantic or the like, don’t bother keeping up with editions.  The oldies but goodies are in every one, and you might have even more oldies in the older editions, as each new edition will land some of them on the chopping block to squeeze in new essays on buzzy new topics.  Anyway, with the savings on a used book, you will be able to buy a few more TV dinners at Aldi.  Or even a roast beef sandwich.

With such a huge volume, navigation is always an issue, and you may worry about getting lost at sea.  Luckily the crack Norton team has anticipated your seafaring reticence, and has given you multiple options for charting a course through the book.  The first table of contents is in historical order, just like the entirety of the book.  Thumb to the very first page with anything meaningful on it for the traditional “Contents” pages (although you can find all sorts of interesting things on the preceding pages if you’re into that sort of thing).  On page xix begins the “Alternative Table of Contents,” which gives you multiple useful options for digging up articles that may be of interest to you or useful for your projects.  Methods and schools are there, for sure, but also genres, historical periods (since they are in order but not periodized in the main text), and issues in theory.  The issues section is especially handy for many paper-writing tasks.  So even if you don’t read even a quarter of the book as assigned readings, you may find at least another quarter of it can be used as your bibliography on any literary topic.  (Hollow out the other half and use it to store your gin.)  Another way to navigate the book is by the indices, which again give you options.  You can look up authors and titles, or you can browse subjects.

Once you find a nice chunk of entries that work for the authors, titles, or subjects you are interested in, look at the bibliographies.  If you get nothing else out of this book, look at the bibliographies!  Everything in the NATC came from somewhere else, and it will tell you where to find the selection, along with more material than you could ever want to read.  What’s more, they evaluate the books for you, and annotate many of them.

So the NATC will not answer all your questions about theory, and it will not make you an instant expert (although the presence of the book on your desk may elicit many astonished "Holy SHIT you read THAT?!" looks).  If you need it for a class, then you need it.  Suck it up and buy the thing, and make it your own.  Put colorful post-it flags on the sections you love, write angry marginalia on the ones you hate, design your own alternative table of contents, paste color coded heuristics into the headnotes to help you put it all into perspective.  I won’t say you’ll never regret buying the thing.  But sometimes, you’ll be really glad you did.