Reading in the End Times

With the closing of Berkeley’s Shakespeare & Co. last year, Moe’s is now the only bookstore on a block that once housed no less than four independent booksellers. Moe’s had an advantage over its competitors: the store’s sheer volume — four floors of books — and a winning mix of new and used stock, the latter getting regular infusions from the city’s famously smart and eclectic readers. The bookstore may have cornered the market on Telegraph Avenue, but lately the shelves look sparse in places. This is noticeable in the Critical Theory section, an institution in its own right on Berkeley’s intellectual scene.

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Over the years the Critical Theory section at Moe’s has housed some of the most forward trends in contemporary thought, from Deconstruction to New Historicism, from Lacanian psychoanalysis to Queer Theory, and from Marxism to Postcolonialism and Critical Race Studies. Berkeley’s own stellar faculty and graduates have been well represented in this section, which is located in a prime spot near the store entrance. On a recent visit, though, I noted what seems a strange emerging trend.

French theorists have always played a major role in critical theory, and there are two noteworthy volumes from France currently on display: Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide (Frédéric Lenoir), and A Philosophy of Walking (Frédéric Gros). There is also a French-themed volume titled How to Live (Sarah Bakewell) — which, taken with the somewhat pedestrian titles of Frédéric & Frédéric, suggests Critical Theory is being replaced by Inspiration & Self-Improvement. To be fair, How to Live is a biography of Michel de Montaigne. And yet, other titles suggest a general critical tendency toward — how to put it — coping?

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There are quite a few books here about the pace of life and the lack of time: the glumly-titled Too Much to Know (Ann M. Blair) and Pressed for Time (Judy Wajcman); Mark C. Taylor, no stranger to these shelves, has a new book titled Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left. The latest addition to this time-pressed category is The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (2016), by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. Berg and Seeber’s manifesto intends to mount a “challenge” and so it can’t rightly be called a book on coping. But maybe the word takes on new meaningWP_20150816_16_47_55_Pro in desperate times, as it shades into adaptingenduring or even just surviving. Slavoj Zizek captures this terminal self-help ethos with his unsurpassably dismal title, self-help to end all self-help, Living in the End Times.

Less glumly, Colin Crouch’s Coping with Post-Democracy has the laudable aim of helping the reader understand “how to cope with a world largely beyond the control of ordinary people.”* By overtly combining the “how-to” genre with the theme of “coping” in a time of disaster, Crouch seems to have outflanked all his competitors. Moreover, Crouch’s audience is very large, and growing: as he points out in The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, “people who have to cope as best they can” make up a distinct majority in our post-democracies, with their downsized jobs, shuttered stores and voracious, omnivorous corporations. But Crouch’s books are in the politics and economics sections of the bookstore.

The end of Critical Theory? Or alternately, a melding of Criticism with Self-Help? At least one bookstore suggests such a future for Critical Theory. At Pulp Fiction books in Vancouver, Self-Help is directly adjacent to Literary Criticism. The results are oddly enlightening: one can consult in the same convenient space Lost Angels of a Ruined Paradise together with The Happiness Project, or The Poet as Mirror with How to Rock Your Body Image, or Discovering Ourselves in Whitman with The Psychopath Test.

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Maybe it seems a bit instrumental to match up poetry’s soul-searching with “how to” advice. But some of the loftiest names in literary criticism have signed books with how to titles. Stanley Fish has a double-barreled How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, while Harold Bloom has How to Read and Why as well as a raft of How to Write About books (on Melville, Emerson, Wilde, Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Amy Tan…). And one of the most clever and engaging books in literary criticism to have come out in recent years is Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read — a perennial reference at The Purgatory Press.

I left Moe’s wondering how long the store would be able to hang on in a difficult bookseller’s market. On my way out, I noticed a young woman seated sideways in a big comfortable armchair by the Critical Theory section, one leg propped on the arm of the chair. A flip-flop dangled idly from her foot. She was absorbed in Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, which, it seemed to me, could have been titled How to be Still.

*Colin Crouch, The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2011), xi.


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