FAQ: Benjamin Morgan

Did you have a favorite class or text in college? What made it your favorite?

I wrote my senior thesis on two novels, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire and Italo Calvino'sIf On a Winter's Night a Traveler.... I was fascinated by how both novels play with their readers. The first sentences of Calvino's novel are "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought." I loved that this was a novel with a sense of humor. As the novel proceeds, you become a character in the story who is led on a wild goose chase from one story to the next. Nabokov's Pale Fire is actually a long poem followed by hundreds of pages of endnotes, apparently written by a man who was so obsessed with the poem's author that he moved in next door and began spying on him. As you read the poem and the endnotes, a story emerges, but you have to put it together yourself. The book forces you to become a sort of literary detective: Who was the person who wrote all of these crazy notes? How did he become so obsessed with an author? I wrote my thesis to try to figure out how to read books like this, which already seem to know that you're reading them.

What would you have liked to tell the 20-year-old version of yourself about college?

I think I'd tell myself to relax, though I'm sure I wouldn't have taken the advice! In some ways, I was a very anxious college student—I felt like I'd been given this great opportunity and I wanted to live up to it. I also felt bewildered by options. But I've found that my happiest friends and acquaintances from college have set their own terms, devoted themselves to something they care about (professionally or otherwise), and haven't worried so much about other metrics of success.

Did you go straight to graduate school after college? If not, what was the most interesting thing you did in the interim?

I worked in New York for two years as an editor and marketing associate for SparkNotes. A large company had recently bought the SparkNotes website and was turning the online content into physical books. (In retrospect, perhaps this was not the wisest business decision.) It was a great job. We were almost all recent college graduates with high literary and aesthetic standards. Some of the early SparkNotes books include "A note on the type" at the end. That tells you something about our pretensions.

What made you decide to specialize in your current subfield in English?

When I started graduate school I wanted to study British modernism. It was incredibly challenging (Pound, Eliot, Joyce), and I had always been drawn to writing that was difficult. I took a seminar on the late-Victorian period as a sort of guilty pleasure, but soon realized that the writing of the 1880s and 1890s was incredibly conceptually interesting. I was especially drawn to the interplay of science and literature at this moment. Victorians didn't just use science to explain big mysteries like where how old the earth is and where humans came from. They also turned a scientific lens on imaginative or philosophical questions such as why music is beautiful and whether ghosts exist. My current research focuses on whether scientific answers to "aesthetic" questions can be persuasive, and why we sometimes resist these explanations within the humanities.

What is the most intriguing or quirky idea that you have learned from your recent research?

The British prime minister William Gladstone thought that the Greeks were color-blind because Homer is really bad at describing color (he calls the sea "wine-dark," for example). Gladstone wrote an article claiming that humans' ability to see color had evolved after Homer. It caused a big debate about color, perception, and evolution in the Victorian press. One writer published an article that counted every reference to red in Tennyson's poetry and compared it to Swinburne's red references. His point was that humans have evolved such that they find red to be especially beautiful. The fascinating thing is that Gladstone was right about Homer, but wrong about evolution. Now scholars think Homer's language is a linguistic quirk of ancient Greek, not anything to do with human perception. You can learn more about it on one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab: http://www.radiolab.org/2012/may/21/.

What is your favorite work of literature to teach to undergraduates?

One book I've enjoyed teaching recently is an 1859 novel called The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. In the nineteenth century, many novels were published in installments—a new section of forty pages or so would come out every week, like serial TV drama today. Collins figured out that a great marketing strategy would be to end each installment with a shocking revelation, so that readers would be eager to find out what happened next. London went crazy: there were Woman in White perfumes,Woman in White waltzes, Woman in White clothing. When I teach the novel, we think about the techniques that novels use to produce feelings like excitement, fear, desire, and suspense, and talk about the ways that reading isn't just a cognitive, mental experience. We also read some of the original reviews, which worried that it was bad for your nerves to read such a shocking novel.

What do you like best about teaching college students at the University of Chicago?

I like that they are always up for a challenge. I've assigned some very difficult texts in my courses, texts that are challenging for me as well. I've been amazed by how much my students work at their readings before they come to class. Sometimes you have to be willing not to understand something the first or second or even sixth time you read it. I think there's an ethical aspect of trying to come to terms with difficult ideas and University of Chicago students definitely have that ethic.