‘In Marx’s novel …’
The New Yorker’s recent account of ‘The End of the English Major’ in US universities reminded me of a peculiar trend in the essays written by my first and second year undergraduates at Berkeley: a surprising number of them seem to think that a book and a novel are the same thing. Or, at least, they often use the two words interchangeably, and find it difficult to articulate the distinction between them. Reading their first essays each semester, I often encounter sentences that begin: ‘In Margaret Mead’s anthropology novel …’; ‘Edward Said, in his novel Orientalism …’; ‘In Marx’s novel, Capital …’ I’ve seen such sentences written by very good writers and by very poor ones; by students interested in the topics on offer and by those who couldn’t care less. Almost all of them are native speakers of English.
When I taught my first class in 2017, as a teaching assistant for a large introductory anthropology class, I saw four, perhaps five such sentences. The following semester it was five, maybe six. In my comments, I noted that a novel was a particular type of book, and that what we were reading were not novels but works of non-fiction, which could be referred to as ‘studies’, ‘works’, ‘texts’ or simply ‘books’. I chalked up the confusion to the very differing quality of humanities education available in US high schools and left it there. When I took up teaching again in spring 2021, however, it was no longer four or five students referring to the ‘novels’ of Mead or Marx or Said. A solid quarter of my students used ‘novel’ and ‘book’ interchangeably, a trend that has continued.
Most of my students are STEM majors, forced to take anthropology classes for distribution requirements, although there are some humanists and social scientists, too. They are as bright as you’d expect, and very anxious about their academic success. That most of them lack a solid training in the humanities is not surprising. Apart from the very fortunate and the very gifted, high-school students (at least in America) rarely receive rigorous instruction in composition or close reading, let alone in the niceties of literary terminology. Once they reach university, they discover that professors, graduate teaching assistants and adjuncts have little time – and no financial incentive – to provide the attention and feedback they need to improve their skills as writers and readers.
The fact that most students receive a poor education in the humanities is too general an explanation, however, to account for the prevalence of the novel-book conflation (my colleagues have noticed it too). So I’ve tried to be a good anthropologist, and ask lots of friendly questions. Twice, I’ve had students confess that they had vaguely thought that ‘a novel’ was a ‘fancier’ way of saying ‘a book’. Another had seen the phrase ‘anthropological literature’ in one of our readings and had assumed from there. One joked that, since ours was ‘basically an English class’ (I begged to differ), they thought all the books we read were novels by definition. (This student also thought that our class was the last time they’d have to write anything longer than a short email or text message – an assumption that, in the era of ChatGPT, doesn’t seem terribly far-fetched.) The issue wasn’t that they didn’t understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction, however. It had to do with how they thought about reading, and about what kinds of text are read in what kinds of way.
The best explanation I can come up with is that the only books most students had to read before college were novels. They had used textbooks, certainly; they had read excerpted chapters, magazine or newspaper articles, blogposts or Wikipedia. But in terms of the books they were now being asked to read – books written by one, maybe two authors, with a progressive argument, designed to be read from start to finish – novels were the only example most students had been exposed to. Since reading a book all the way through, whether out of interest or enthusiasm or under duress, was what they did with novels, it stood to reason that all books to be read this way were also novels.
If this explanation is correct, then the novel-book conflation is perhaps harmless, a factor of experience and exposure. Yet it may also be indicative of a broader trend: the increasing marginalisation not of reading in general (which is certainly more ubiquitous today than at any period in human history), but of a particular way of reading a particular kind of work: reading as the sustained, progressive engagement with a book that is written to be read as a whole, from beginning to end. Students and faculty are under increasing pressure to read as ‘poachers’ (to distort slightly Michel de Certeau’s phrase), approaching the works of their peers as hives of information to be harvested piecemeal and on demand. I’ve listened to too many faculty complain in recent years that they – or their colleagues – ‘just don’t read anymore’. And few graduate students seem to read entire books. Who has the time? You can cover a lot more ground by poaching – and publish a lot more, too.
This change in reading practice doesn’t only accelerate the drive to make the humanities and qualitative social sciences focus on the production of ‘useful’ information, rather than on the cultivation of critical thought and perception. It also makes them less fulfilling, as the (admittedly difficult) experience of reading books like Capital or Orientalism is replaced by reading them in snippets or through summaries written by others – now including, as a number of my students’ recent essays seem to suggest, by AI. Some people will always find the idea of reading such books exhausting, perhaps superfluous. But it isn’t hard to see how the experience of reading an entire book is very different from ingesting its arguments piecemeal or second-hand.
If I sound like an ornery old curmudgeon, let me stress that, as a 31-year-old anthropologist, I see this change in the way we tend to read as occurring alongside many others that are exciting and overdue. All the same, in the current climate of relentless productivity, narrowing attention spans and demand for literature and scholarship that (like everything else) can be consumed easily and efficiently, it is a worrying development. I’ll try to take heart from the fact that ChatGPT seems to know that Capital isn’t a novel (I’ve checked).