The Editors of "The Cambridge History of the American Novel" decided to consider their subject -- as history is considered increasingly in universities these days -- from the bottom up. In 71 chapters, the book's contributors consider the traditional novel in its many sub-forms, among them: science fiction, eco-fiction, crime and mystery novels, Jewish novels, Asian-American novels, African-American novels, war novels, postmodern novels, feminist novels, suburban novels, children's novels, non-fiction novels, graphic novels and novels of disability ("We cannot truly know a culture until we ask its disabled citizens to describe, analyze, and interpret it," write the authors of a chapter titled "Disability and the American Novel"). Other chapters are about subjects played out in novels -- for instance, ethnic and immigrant themes -- and still others about publishers, book clubs, discussion groups and a good deal else. "The Cambridge History of the Novel," in short, provides full-court-press coverage.Read the whole thing. Epstein launches into an entertaining diatribe about how the follies of the academy rob undergraduates of the love for lit. One doesn't have to agree with him at every point to see how the intellectual provincialism of universities, their inevitable Balkanization of books into racial and sexual subtexts, and tone-deaf academic styles can push students away from bibliophilia to (ahem) more practical majors. And while Epstein has a point in saying that professors have lost the ability to judge just what makes a work good, I think he missteps in brushing aside the entire field of genre fiction. True, most genre books fall short of literary greatness, but a few (1984, A Brave New World, Dracula, Frankenstein) have landed in the canon. Yet even when it fails to rise above the level of pulp, genre provides young readers with something important -- a love of tales and characters and language itself.
"In short," though, is perhaps the least apt phase for a tome that runs to 1,244 pages and requires a forklift to hoist onto one's lap. All that the book's editors left out is why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others.
(Picture: CC 2008 by Nico&CO; Hat Tip: B. Nagel)