Literary Theory Is So, So Dumb

Plus: Only Jay Gatsby could afford a first edition 'Great Gatsby' dust jacket

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Today in literature: the rise and fall of literary theory, a very expensive Great Gatsby book jacket is hitting the auction block, and Agatha Christie's surf secrets get their own book.

  • For hundreds of years, people read books for plot, character, action and nice turns-of-phrase. Then, in the 1970s literary theory emerged on American campuses, and suddenly that wing in the English department faculty lounge--the one reserved for the professors whose classes never had a wait list, the ones who knew too much of academia, and too little of life and books--had to tell students they were reading wrong. As The Atlantic's Scott Stossel wrote in 1996, professors at the time were offering up just about "any esoteric ism" you could think of to support reading a book not as a book, but as a coded text (always a text) dealing with the semester's most provocative social issues. Eventually, people graduated and could return to reading books like normal. It was all very silly, and by the end of 20th century, the backlash had begun against criticism "disconnected from life" and academia's  "love affair with reducing literature to ideas, to the author's or reader's intention or ideology," argued Lindsay Waters in The Chronicle of Higher Education back in 2005. If you're not currently in college struggling through a syllabus that includes Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Terry Eagleton---and if you are, you have The Atlantic Wire's deepest sympathies--The Millions has compiled a six book syllabus to help make sense of theory. We wouldn't buy the books for all the tea in China, but the accompanying text is illuminating, and a thumbnail guide to what he calls the "life and afterlife" of a not-so-hot approach to reading books. [The Millions]
  • Agatha Christie's career as "Britain's first stand-up surfer" will not go unremembered. HarperCollins has reached a deal to publish The Grand Tour, a collection of "previously unpublished letters and photos along with postcards, newspaper cuttings and memorabilia picked up by Christie" ona year-round, round-the-world trip she took back in 1922. The book is scheduled to be released in April, and is sure to feature plenty of pictures of the mystery author on surfboards. [The Guardian]
  • A dust jacket from a first edition of The Great Gatsby will be auctioned off at Sotheby's in October. For collectors, a Gatsby first edition is the green light of book jackets. The Sotheby's auction is expected to fetch somewhere from $150,000 to $180,000. One sold last summer for $182,000 and there's another available right now from Peter Harrington Rare Books in the United Kingdom, which costs $189,000. Why is the Gatsby jacket so desired? Ubiquity has something to do with it. Scribner Library paperback editions have used Francis Cugat's illustration as the book's cover art since 1979, and every high schooler has seen it. [Book Tryst]
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