Is this not one of the coolest titles you’ve ever heard? Richard E. Miller’s book is subtitled, well…it’s not subtitled. Very strange for an academic book. An academic book about academia. So one might assume that this book goes against the grain of academia by ensuring that important daily stuff gets talked about, and one would be correct. In the first chapter, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” Miller takes us through Columbine and dares to talk about the possibility that our jobs as teachers in the university have become irrelevant. He ends the first section of the first chapter with this:
I have these doubts, you see, doubts silently shared by many who spend their days teaching others the literate arts. Aside from gathering and organizing information, aside from generating critiques and analyses that forever fall on deaf ears, what might the literate arts be said to be good for? How — and in what limited ways — might reading and writing be made to matter in the new world that is evolving before our eyes? Is there any way to justify or explain a life spent working with — and teaching others to work with — texts? These are the questions that animate the meditations that follow. Those who have never felt the inner urgency of such questions need read no further.
He’s kind of an academic kickass Lemony Snicket, who prefaces all the books in his Series of Unfortunate Events by warning his readers to venture no further, especially if they’re looking for happy endings: “Dear Reader, I’m sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. … It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing” (The Bad Beginning).
Richard Miller’s preface starts with Chernobyl. The book’s cover has a photograph of a deserted classroom fractured from the effects of Chernobyl. There is a bleakness that starts it all…but the bleakness won’t remain. Otherwise Miller wouldn’t have written the book. He does feel “the inner urgency of such questions” and he’s got something to teach us about the meaning of teaching, reading, and writing. At the end of the world.