In February 1999, as I prepared the syllabus for my first course in British literature, an article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education that terrified me. According to James Shapiro of Columbia University, recent trends indicated that university professors were beginning ‘to abandon longer works … [in order] to rescue their favorite authors from oblivion’:
novels that are more than 350 pages long – even if they are by celebrated writers like Charles Dickens, James Joyce, George Eliot, and Henry James – are regularly rejected by professors who have learned from experience that it's wiser to play it safe and substitute a shorter work, one that students will be more likely to finish.
As a specialist in Victorian fiction, I had sudden visions of teaching A Christmas Carol and Silas Marner until my dotage. My course for the next semester was ambitiously titled ‘Traditions of English Literature’, and there, I decided, amid obligatory selections from Chaucer and Shakespeare, I would fight against shapiro's grim observation. Literature syllabi might someday dispense with baggy monsters, but not on my watch.
By october, we were 400 pages into Bleak House, and all seemed well. We had navigated the novel's prickly opening chapters, and pop quizzes showed that most students were reading; in another hundred pages Krook would spontaneously – gloriously – combust. Then, one day, as I walked to our classroom, I casually asked one of my best students how she was doing.