U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Prayer of Common Books

Last week I suggested that Stanford professor Robert Harrison’s nostalgic apologia for the Western Culture program at Stanford – or, at least, his apologia for the program’s shared reading list – echoed older assertions about the power of common readings to foster intellectual community.  Indeed, this defense of the core reading list was practically an article of faith for some Stanford professors, from the time the course was adopted in 1980 to the time that it was replaced in 1988.  In this post, I look more closely at this faith in the power of common books to constitute community.

English professor Ronald Rebholz, defending the core reading list during the late 1980s debate over the Western Culture program, explained the unifying function of the list as it had been envisioned by the Task Force that had developed the course, a curricular committee he himself had chaired during the 1970s.  The core list, Rebholz said, had been designed as “a pragmatic instrument for creating some commonality among multiple tracks,” assuring that all the tracks of the Western Culture course, though taught from various disciplinary perspectives, would cover some of the same material and thus constitute a single course. Beyond requiring a single course, though, those who championed the core list wanted to offer a unifying course.  Rebholz argued that a common reading list created “the possibility of intellectual exchange among students from different tracks.” Indeed, the Task Force had felt that a shared reading list would “create the possibility of an intellectual communion between Stanford students and people outside Stanford whose educations have been influenced by Western Europe, people on every continent of the earth.”[1]

This notion of a worldwide “intellectual communion” constituted via reading a set of particularly worthy texts was practically ecclesiological. Though defenders of the core reading list in the 1980s debate denied that they had ever viewed the list itself as “sacred,” Rebholz’s retrospective apologia for the list framed it as a sort of shared lectionary for a worldwide communion of intellectual inquiry – not a communion of saints, certainly, but a communion of sages.[2] Indeed, these professors’ confidence (or, at least, their hope) in the power of shared readings as a means to an ideal unity transcending not just disciplinary but also even national divisions represented a kind of secular ecumenism very similar to that of contemporary Christian movements seeking to transcend the denominational and confessional divides among and between Protestant and Catholic churches.

Growing out of the liturgical reforms in the Catholic church following the Second Vatican Council, an ecumenical group of Catholic and Protestant scholars of scripture and liturgy formed the Consultation on Common Texts in 1969 in order to develop “agreed upon versions of [those] liturgical texts used in common by the churches” – the Gloria, the Sanctus, the Lord’s Prayer, and so forth.[3]  In 1978, the Consultation on Common Texts agreed to expand their efforts beyond the original focus on shared liturgical forms to include a revision of the lectionary, “the cycle of [Scripture] readings read in public worship.” Since several mainline Protestant denominations in the United States had formally adopted the new Catholic lectionary while nevertheless “making their own revisions,” the CCT hoped to reconcile these variants into a “consensus lectionary.”[4] In 1983, the CCT published this revised schedule of texts as The Common Lectionary.[5] According to a liturgist of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the “singular strength” of this new set of readings was “the nurturing of a common ecclesiology.”[6]  That is, the reading of the same scriptural lessons during worship services of different Christian denominations both pointed to and fostered an underlying sense of unity of spirit and unity of purpose.  The Common Lectionary would offer resistance to “the entrenched individualism of the culture.”  Reading the same texts together would help to counteract the more radical tendencies of liberal individualism, as evident in the church as in the university.

To be clear, I am not arguing that the Stanford reading list was developed in imitation of this liturgical instrument for ecclesial unity, or even with any awareness of the efforts of religious communities to address problems of unity via shared readings. But the reading list was developed in response to some of the same cultural shifts, the same underlying sense of fracture that characterized the age – a sense of fracture both evident in and exacerbated by the breakdown of any sense of commonality or mutuality of belonging. So these two similar institutional responses to fracture reflect a similar valorization of the power of focused reading of shared texts to contribute to – or, perhaps, to manifest – an underlying spiritual, intellectual, or social unity.  Just as “Biblical texts…clearly shape[d]” corporate worship in ways that narrowed the distances and divisions of spirit and purpose among those who read them together, no matter their local church affiliation, so a selection of “great works” that Stanford students could read in common with one another and (presumably) with other university students and graduates throughout the world would bridge divisions among those who had studied them, no matter their local cultural situation.[7]

This confidence (or desperate hope?) in the power of common readings to foster intellectual unity between the various interpretive communities among university undergraduates depended upon a particular understanding of the relationship between texts and their readers.  Why would various groups of students intent on pursuing different paths of disciplinary specialization necessarily attain “intellectual communion” with each other and with graduates of other universities simply by studying the same texts?  Why would the different micro-communities of interpretation not exercise a centrifugal effect on the meaning of texts?

Just across the San Francisco Bay, from his professorial perch in the English Department at Berkeley, Stanley Fish had been posing such questions to literary scholars and humanists for about a decade before the establishment of Stanford’s Western Culture requirement.  During the 1970s, Fish gained prominence as a leading light among a loosely-affiliated group of literary critics who articulated a theoretical approach known as “reader response criticism.”[8] Fish’s work during that decade began as an attempt to move away from the formalist strictures of New Criticism that had situated all meaning in a text that stood alone as an object of inquiry – alone and apart from the time of its composition and the temper or tastes of its readers.  “In 1970,” Fish wrote in the introduction to Is There A Text In This Class?, “I was asking the question ‘Is the reader or the text the source of meaning?’“[9] In his initial answers to this question, Fish “challenged the self-sufficiency of the text by pointing out that its (apparently) spatial form belied the temporal dimension in which its meanings were actualized.”  That is, a text’s meaning emerged as a reader moved through it, word by word, line by line, chapter by chapter.  “I argued that it was the developing shape of that actualization, rather than the static shape of the printed page, that should be the object of critical description.”  Fish’s critical stance gave “the activities of the reader…a prominence and importance they did not have before.”[10]

By the middle of the 1970s, though, Fish came to realize that the very terms in which he had framed his question presupposed the integrity and stability of “the text” and “the reader” as distinct from one another.[11]  “I felt obliged to posit an object in relation to which readers’ activities” could be assessed, “and that object was the text (at least insofar as it was a temporal structure of ordered items); but this meant that the integrity of the text was as basic to my position as it was to the position of the New Critics.”  By 1980, Fish had concluded that “it is the reader who ‘makes’ literature,” not by inventing whatever meaning he or she likes, but by participating in a community who have made “a collective decision as to what will count as literature, a decision that will be in force only so long as a community of readers or believers continues to abide by it.”[12]

For Fish, then, the sense of community preceded and even precipitated the sense of a work’s literary power or merit.  There were no “intrinsically interesting” – or intrinsically literary – texts that were in essence “great works.” Rather, the judgment of the interpretive community, its collective decision (or tradition) to regard one text or another as “literature,” as a linguistic work qualitatively different from and deeper than other works within the same genre – that collective judgment of a scholarly community that a text was worth studying is what gave texts their value.  Andrew Hartman explained the implications of Fishian critical theory succinctly:  “Textual hierarchies were conventions of time, place, circumstance, and power. The Western canon, as with all canons, was a social construction.”[13]  Thus the university community, unified in its judgment of what works were worth discussing, had the power to confer greatness or canonicity or sacrality upon particular texts.  But particular texts had no intrinsic merit beyond the respect afforded to them via the practices of shared study; in other words, the community constituted the canon.

By contrast, Rebholz and others who later defended the reading list argued that the study of these texts in particular, selected from what they saw as an established tradition, could bring into being an “intellectual communion”; in other words, the canon constituted the community. Nevertheless, even as they themselves engaged in the process of constructing this “canon” – a process that could serve as a case study for how communities authorize and de-authorize texts in fine Fishian fashion – the reading list’s champions at the same time argued that the texts on the list were worth reading not simply because other college-educated people had studied them, but because they had intrinsic value.

Whether or not those texts had intrinsic value, the common reading list on which they appeared did not accomplish the purpose for which it was purportedly designed. Or so it might have seemed.


[1] Ronald Rebholz, “Proposal Will Stretch Existing Tracks to the Breaking Point,” Campus Report, Feb. 10, 1988, 21.

[2] Some professors felt it necessary to counteract or contradict the tendency toward sacralization evident in defenses like Rebholz’s.  For example, professor of mathematics Halsey Royden, who had been Dean of Humanities and Sciences when the Western Culture course was being developed, distributed a statement to the Faculty Senate in 1988 explicitly rejecting the idea that advocating for the core list amounted to regarding it or the texts on it as “’sacred writ’.”  See “Royden: Review the core list to ensure that unconscious bias has not crept in,” Campus Report, Feb. 24, 1988, 14.

[3] “History,” Consultation on Common Texts (web), accessed Jul. 1, 2015, http://www.commontexts.org/history/index.html.

[4] Harold M. Daniels, “Preface,” Handbook for the Common Lectionary, edited by Peter C. Bower (Philadelphia, Penn.: The Geneva Press, 1987), 11-12.

[5] “History,” CCT (web).

[6] Peter C. Bower, “Introduction,” Handbook for the Common Lectionary, edited by Peter C. Bower (Philadelphia, Penn.: The Geneva Press, 1987), 30.

[7] Bower, “Introduction,” 26.

[8] See the foundational anthology of essays by Fish and others on “reader response” theory: Jane P. Tompkins, ed., Reader-response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-structuralism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

[9] Stanley Fish, “Introduction, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Interpretation,” Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980), 1.

[10] Fish, 2.

[11] Fish, 1.

[12] Fish, 11.

[13] Hartman, 225.

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. The notion that “particular texts had no intrinsic merit beyond the respect afforded to them via the practices of shared study” raises the question of *why* certain texts over the decades have been, by some rough consensus, deemed to have more ‘merit’ and to be more worthy of study than others.

    Why have many people thought Hamlet or Middlemarch, say, more worthy of being read and studied than a random superhero comic book? Might it have something to do with the depth of emotions explored, the openness to ambiguity and contradiction, the richness and complexity of language, the realization that a black-and-white, good-guys-and-bad-guys frame of the sort perhaps found in a Spiderman or Batman comic book is not adequate to capture what the world is like? If creating a shared community of readers were the only point of a shared reading list, then all students could be assigned a random grocery list or the text of a federal regulation or a comic book and they could discuss that over dinner. The notion that what is read doesn’t matter as long as it’s common seems dubious, and was probably (though I’m guessing) not one that many supporters of the common reading list embraced.

    As for Fish, I’ve read very little of his work but I would like to think he realizes that this stuff about no texts having any intrinsic value raises, at best, a lot more questions than it answers and, at worst, is simply provocative nonsense.

    • p.s. None of this is a criticism of the post, of course, but rather of some of the positions it discusses.

    • Just for food for thought, noticing the prevalence of comic books as an example here, I remembered this passage from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: “Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history – his home – the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered *merely an escape from reality,* seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf.”

      And in fact, many people do regard comic books as literature worth of serious study. The point isn’t that “anything goes,” but that to say “no, not anything goes,” actually doesn’t do as much to shrink the pile of possible “community texts” as you might think.

      • @Robin Marie
        I had second thoughts about using comic books here, but it just was what occurred to me on the spur of the moment; but yes, probably not the best choice on my part. I’m aware that many people regard comic bks as worthy of serious study and that there is a scholarly lit. on them.

        If one wanted to focus on interplay of text and image, I cd see assigning, e.g., a graphic novel as a ‘community’ text, and indeed iirc there was a mini-controversy a while back when an incoming freshman at (I forget which univ — Duke maybe?) said he wasn’t going to read the graphic novel suggested for those purposes. But this gets off topic.

  2. What an elegant and informative post–thanks, L.D., I always learn something new from your work. In your research, have you come across (as complementary/counterweight) the evolution, selection, and dissemination of an “Eastern” or “Non-Western” canon within the late 20th-century American university? I thought of the growth of Asian and African Studies centers/fellowships/curricula during the post-1945 era, and just wondered how (if at all) that related your work.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Louis, the “pure” Fishian position was not the argument of most “canon” defenders at Stanford. Ron Rebholz and others who defended the list as a pragmatic instrument also contended for the intrinsic excellence of the works included on it. So the two lines of argument were not mutually exclusive.

    Sara, in terms of history of the curriculum, I am looking at people’s conception of the “non-Western.” If people were worried that “the Western canon” or “Western civilization” was in danger of being superseded / devalued in relation to the “non Western,” while other people argued that “Western culture” should be de-centered, what was going to take its place in the curriculum? Was, for example, Latin American literature “Western” or “non Western”? That was a point of contention among both defenders and detractors of the Western Culture course/reading list.

  4. FWIW, debates about the reading list also turned around “high”/”low” distinctions — distinctions of genre mostly (e.g., novels v. comic books) but also distinctions about “worthy” subject matter.

    And the tension inherent in some of those distinctions also shapes (or plagues) my writing about them. This is a tough problem to navigate–a bit of a mimetic mess at times. Writing in the “low” idioms of the blogosphere while simultaneously working on more formal “high” academic discourse helps, I think. I hope. Sometimes “light” writing can do some pretty heavy lifting in terms of clearing the ground for substantial work. Most of that I’m doing at my own blog now, but some of it happens here.

    Indeed, it seems to me that blogging works this way for a lot of us, whether we’re writing or commenting or simply reading and mulling things over.

    • (And what makes blogging work, especially as informal/”low” discourse, is its conversational nature. I’m so grateful to readers here for conversing, with me and others, not just here but in various corners/channels of cyberspace — Facebook, Twitter, just this morning in comments at my own blog, often in comments on other blogs I read. It’s quite a sprawling discourse community, but it’s no less important to all our collective labors than the most formal academic settings.)

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