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Burdened by Books

Teaching Camus amid fears of “futile and hopeless labor”

With the quickening cascade of political, social, and natural crises in our country, the faith in progress—the belief that good will and steady work leads to a better world—is a difficult faith to maintain. There have been times when the arc of history seemed to bend toward justice. But lately it’s snapped back the other way. It’s as if we’ve heaved a great boulder toward the mountain top, and we’re now watching it, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, as it careens back to the ground below. It feels that there is something absurd, in fact literally Sisyphean, to our predicament.  

Albert Camus felt that way in his time. By the late 1930s, the French-Algerian writer had reason to think he was condemned to the same punishment as the mythical hero. As a teenager, he began to cough up blood; diagnosed with tuberculosis, Camus had to live each day as if it were his last. As the son of an illiterate, largely deaf and mute mother, he endured silence with the person he most loved. As a young man of the left, Camus watched France’s Popular Front government collapse while the forces of totalitarianism strengthened across Europe.

How absurd, how pointless it all seemed, and how urgent that opening declaration in his youthful essay The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” It is, however, only at the essay’s end—when Camus embraces life, not death—that he introduces the mythical Greek hero. “The Gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

The gods, Camus insists, were wrong: Sisyphus proved greater than his absurd task. Thus, we must imagine him happy, Camus concludes. But must we also imagine happy those professors who shoulder this book—or any book, for that matter—in their classrooms today?

You see, while the dire question that drove Camus to write The Myth of Sisyphus was “whether life is worth living,” I am confronted by a more modest question: whether teaching is worth doing.

This fall semester, Camus’s essay was among several works I taught in my French existentialism class. Time and again, I asked myself if I was chained to an absurd task. How could it not be, if students themselves feel that reading and studying are not worth doing? A cascade of recent studies reveals that both activities are on the wane. The amount of time twelfth graders spent on screens skyrocketed from three to more than six hours a day between 2006 and 2015, according to the psychologist Jean Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. In this zero-sum game, the amount of time spent with books cratered. In the late 1970s, 60 percent of twelfth graders read a book or magazine every day; by 2016, that percentage dropped to 16 percent. About one-third, moreover, did not read a single book for pleasure in 2016.

Is it just as unreasonable to demand that students use an ancient technology as it is to demand that an indifferent universe offers us meaning?

Even reading for purpose, if not pleasure, has taken a mortal hit. Eleven years ago, a longitudinal study by the economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks revealed that, between 1961 and 2003—in other words, before we were all caught in the web—the average amount of time students spent studying dropped from twenty-four hours to fourteen hours a week. Though Babcock and Marks were uncertain about the causes for the decline, they suspected it resulted, at least in part, from what they called “an increased demand for leisure”—i.e., time spent neither working for a job nor studying for a course.

Two decades later, a stroll through my university’s library—where one can walk through vast spaces filled with tables surrounded by chattering students watching videos on laptops to empty stacks lined by vacant study carrels—suggests that the decline of reading and studying has only quickened. This trend is not unique to my place of work. At my alma mater, the University of Virginia, the number of books checked out of the library fell from 528,672 in 2008–2009 to 188,302 in 2017–2018. Perhaps in another ten years, the only books at the UVA library will be those painted on the walls.

I’ve begun to fear that requiring my existentialism students to bring real books to class is . . . well, absurd. Absurd not just in the everyday sense of ridiculous, but absurd in the Camusian sense as well. Is it just as unreasonable to demand that students use an ancient technology as it is to demand that an indifferent universe offers us meaning? It might be the case that my traditional expectations of students are unreasonable. More than a few students, rather than bringing paperbacks of the assigned works, bring printouts. At best, this means they haven’t the means to buy the book; at worst, it means they find unmeaningful the very possession of the book. They have no more intention to keep a printout—to reread or reflect upon it—than I have the intention to keep yesterday’s newspaper.   

But the real problem, if that is the right word, is not whether they own the book. It is whether they know what to do with it. Is it not possible that a book—a few hundred pages lined with small print uninterrupted by images or sounds—seems as foreign, as alien, as everyday objects came to seem to Antoine Roquentin, the narrator of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential novel Nausea? Or, indeed, as books were in the young Camus’s home, where his grandmother, mother and uncle were all illiterate? Can it be that, for students, books are their boulders? That they might represent a kind of work that is erased at the end of a semester?

The kind of reading that we learned to do six thousand years ago—what researchers call deep reading—was so challenging that it rewired our brains, creating a new circuit to enable this activity. Unlike life in the shallows of our flat screens, deep reading entails time and attention. It is a task that asks us not only to reflect but also to reflect on the act of reflecting. It is hard, but the rewards, as Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, argues, are huge, sharpening our analogical reasoning, critical analysis and sustained empathy.

Like the blips of a sonar, student papers suggest my students are mostly floating on the surface. For them to piece words together in their papers is as difficult as it is for them to pick through the words in their books. There are, of course, the usual litter of dependent clauses, run-on sentences running into themselves, the clutter of incomplete sentences, and the Dadaist-inspired word choices. More telling, though, is that the papers often seem to be written in the same way that someone who never having seen a plane tries to draw one based on its definition. Hence the papers I am reading on intra-subjectivity that are in search of a subject, the papers on existential ambiguity wrapped in syntactical ambiguity, the papers on Dasein—the state of “being thrown into the world”—that are thrown together at random.

How absurd, right? Recall that, for Camus, the absurd is not a state that exists apart from us. Instead, it happens when a bare fact and a certain reality clash. Absurdity thus occurs not only when our pursuit of meaning runs into a silent cosmos, but also when a student unable to read runs into a paper that needs to be written.

But it might also occur when a professor who reads runs into a world where students only listen.

In his account of Sisyphus, Camus goes back as far as the Homeric epics, where this, “the wiliest of men,” becomes the most tormented of men, condemned to the underworld and “pushing a giant rock with both hands . . . his body drenched in sweat, his head all dusty.”

But Camus could have gone back further, as far as the archaic age, when long before the transposition of the Homeric epics to parchment, bards traveled the lands and sang the stories of these epic heroes. The classicist Milman Parry, who after studying the performances of itinerant and illiterate bards in Yugoslavia, argued that the ancient Greek bards never sang the same epic twice. Instead, they improvised. Like archaic rap artists, they jammed on the poems’ thematic structures in each of their performances. It was a world where culture was, quite literally, created by word of mouth—words that enchanted but also instructed.

Nearly three millennia later, the near future resembles the distant past. A least, sort of. Scholars compare the vocal-dance performances of pre-literate peoples to the rapid riffs that come and go on Twitter and TikTok. But it also seems to differ. Digital orality, unlike ancient orality, is based on interjections and exclamations. The media scholar Andrey Mir argues that it operates with emotions and objects—memes, pictures, videos and so on—rather than with meanings.

Though I had read about our new age of orality, my students made it existential. The absence of punctuation and attrition of meaning, the spinning of word salads and splintering of sentences in their papers read like transcripts from their online lives. Walter Ong’s description of traditional oral cultures—the flourishing of additives and redundancies, the focus on the present and the concrete—also seems to describe my students’ stabs at written culture.

We might take this pause, this moment of consciousness, to wonder where the new orality leaves us all, teachers as well as students.

But one does not need to be much of a sleuth to make these discoveries. Just ask my students. They are mostly juniors and seniors, some in the liberal arts college, others in the professional colleges. They are genuinely curious and open-minded; they seem as engaged by ideas as they are engaging in class. More than a few are devoted to the same literary works I had been at their age, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Yet it is not clear if these students had, in fact, read Tolkien or instead watched Peter Jackson’s film adaptation. I suspect the latter. In an earlier class, when I asked the students if they read outside of their classes, a few raised their hands. When I asked if they read physical books, even fewer nodded their heads. When I then asked if they found the course’s books challenging to read, I was not surprised that many more nodded their heads. It was not just, say, the weirdness of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, the thickness of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, or the otherness of Camus’s The Stranger. Instead, their difficulty seems to reside in the act of spending time alone with an open book in their hands.

Faced by this difficulty, students told me that they listen to audio recordings of the book as they read. The sound of the words, it seems, helps them grasp the sense of the words. They also trawl through YouTube for video essays on the books. They have sent me dozens of links to these videos; they are of varying length and lucidity. Almost uniformly, though, they are little more than dramatic performances of SparkNotes, a series of bullet points, replete with predictable illustrations, often read by someone with an English accent. Yet other students sent me memes based on existentialist ideas, or even made memes, some of them quite witty, of their own.

But what can I do with this material and where will it lead us? In the story of Sisyphus, what interests Camus is the pause—what he calls “the hour of consciousness”— the condemned hero experiences as he walks down the mountain to shoulder his boulder once again. We, too, might take this pause, this moment of consciousness, to wonder where the new orality leaves us all, teachers as well as students. We have little choice but to live in the world as it is, but that does not mean we should not try to hold on to what is most important from the world as it was.

How else can we imagine ourselves, if not happy, at least not hapless?