Just before the wedding (which went great, by the way—more later, but see here and here in the meantime), I finished reading Jonathan Lethem’s novel Fortress of Solitude, and I’ve been talking about it ever since. Maybe I’m just deprived from not reading any contemporary fiction in the run-up to the exams, but it seemed like the sort of book that could get everyone talking. After a couple hundred pages I knew I was going to want to blog on it, but I couldn’t think of how to get beyond “this book is really interesting” and thus make it interesting to those (probably almost all of you) who hadn’t read the book. Luckily Joe Kugelmass called my attention to Timothy Burke’s proposal for a “Department of Everything Studies” (by posting his own excellent response to it), and I realized the way in: the novel intersects with a debate, bubbling especially over the last few years, over the juxtaposition of pop culture with high culture (or the outright substitution of the latter with the former), in art, in academia, and in society at large. Incidentally, feel free to put invisible quotation marks around “high culture,” but to a large extent I believe in the distinction so I’m leaving them out.
What I’ve written below is pretty sprawling, and I don’t pretend to have a particularly clear thesis—except insofar as, once again, I propose the Middle Path. Instead, I want to use the book to examine some of the issues that surround the interaction between pop culture and high culture, including the canon, race and class, and “nerds,” and look at how academics might resolve these. (A note to those who haven’t read the book: I’ll try to avoid spoilers here, but obviously a certain amount of reference to the events of the plot is inevitable.)