Some years ago, when I was teaching in a respected department in a prestigious university in one of the older states of the union (note how nimbly I pirouette past specifics there), a slightly more senior member of the faculty stopped me in the hallway to trade brief pleasantries. After a moment, seeing that I had a copy of Byron’s Don Juan in my hand, he pointed at it, blandly remarked that it was an interesting object, and then asked, “What are you reading that for ?” One really has to stress and slightly elongate that final word in one’s imagination to hear the question with the proper intonation and intention. He was asking me, in the argot of the academic tribe, what course I had to teach, or what paper I had to write, or to what tedious scholarly necessity I had to truckle, in order to be thus obliged to spend time with a volume so clearly outside the purview of our official discipline.

When I replied—quite guilelessly—that I was reading it for pleasure, he smiled indulgently, nodded, said, “Of course,” and then added, “But, really, why are you using it?” When I repeated that my only purpose was the enjoyment of reading it, the faint sparkle of geniality faded from his eyes, his expression became grave and pensive, and he stared at me in silence for several seconds, as though I had said something outlandish and perhaps a little depraved; then he sighed; then he looked about him to see if anyone else might be walking past. “Well,” he said at last, turning a gaze wan with indifference back in my direction, “is it any good?”

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