The State Board of Higher Education, emboldened by the failure of North Dakota Ballot Measure 3, issued a proclamation that no faculty members outside of the English, language or literature programs can read novels, and people in those programs can only read novels directed toward (1) research, (2) classroom activities, or (3) other professional development. Ostensibly, this policy stems from the “pernicious advance of modernism in our universities, communities, and state” but many faculty think it is simply designed to focus our attention on academic pursuits.
Needless to say, this new policy will crimp my summer reading list which I sometimes pepper with so-called “fiction.” It will also make long intercontinental and cross-country flights less pleasant. Since it does not come into effect until January 1 and I had a few flights over the last month or so, I decided to take advantage of my last remaining months of free reading.
Here are three novels:
1. William Gibson, The Peripheral (2014). The novel is set in the both the near future (say 20 years from now) and the slightly more distant future (say 100 years from now) and starts with a description of an 1970s Airstream RV winterized with some kind of spray foam. The setting for much of the action in the more distant future is a tricked out Mercedes RV designed for long range trekking across the Gobi desert. The plot is fast-paced, baffling, and interesting enough, but the real power of Gibson’s books comes from his sensitivity toward future trends ranging from the rise of the internet to virtual reality. Anyone who does not see a future where we live in mobile housing has not been reading my blog very carefully.
2. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014). VenderMeer’s novels present a darker, even more distopian vision of the near future. The trilogy of Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance focus on a group of bureaucrats, scientists, and intelligence officials who the vaguely articulated “Central” has tasked with studying a mysterious Area X which suddenly appeared along a stretch of the Forgotten Coast. When the phenomenon that created Area X occurred, the sparse population of this stretch of coastline vanished and a barrier arose between the area and its surroundings. Southern Reach is the government agency investigating Area X, and while the descriptions of the mysterious area tend toward the etherial, they are unmistakably archaeological in character. The desolate beauty of abandonment permeates the novel and provides VenderMeer with an appropriate backdrop to explore the alienating effects of modern society.
3 Julia Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (2014). This lovely, short novel explores a year in the life of Prof. Jason Fitger through his letters of recommendation. It chronicles his relationships with his ex-wife and ex-girl friend, his desperate efforts on behalf of a once promising friend and a student whose funding is cut by an increasingly rapacious administration, and his various letters to support students looking for work. The letter themselves range from the pathetic, to the charming, hilarious, and all-to-real, but they all embody the tension between Fitger as the devoted egoist and as the dedicated mentor, colleague, and friend. His letters become opportunities to reflect on his own situation in life as well as those of the students and colleagues who he recommends. The situations will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has spent time in academia: the grass is always greener (in another department), the plight of the overlooked genius, the anxiety surrounding creative and scholarly production, and the alternation between naivety and suspicion.
One more set of flights starting this afternoon and then I’ll be home for the holidays. I don’t have any more novels to read, so I’ll have to do work. Hopefully spending some time with creative folks like Gibson, VanderMeer, and Schumacher rubs off and makes me work better. Isn’t that the promise of modernity?