David Kastan, George M. Bodman Professor of English, Elizabethan literature scholar, and editor of widely-used editions of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” spoke Thursday at the Whitney Humanities Center to commemorate the Elizabethan Club Centenary. WEEKEND caught up with the Renaissance man before the lecture as he waxed poetic about his book fetish, naked parties and why he’d rather not have a drink with Shakespeare.
A. I’m so sorry I agreed to do this. I’m only doing this because I’m a big WEEKEND fan. I’m a WEEKEND guy. You know, someone told me that talking to a reporter isn’t a conversation, it’s a duel.
Q. We’ll try to go easy on you. And thanks for braving the snow for us. Any winter weather quotes come to mind?
Q. Fair enough. So, you’re giving a lecture this afternoon to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Elizabethan Club at Yale — “The Lizzie.” Can you give us a preview of your comments?
A. No [laughs].
A. Fine, I’ll be reasonable [laughs]. I was so flattered to have been asked to give the lecture, which is the opening event of what is essentially a year-long celebration of the Lizzie centennial. It’s a lecture with an odd title: “Shakespeare’s Fat Little Volume, or Does Matter Matter?” On the one hand, it attempts to recognize what the collection in the Elizabethan Club actually offers our community — but then use that information to think about something that’s increasingly become an issue in literary studies, and that is the relationship to the material text, and the wonderful books that the Lizzie collection has. But we must recognize that without the activity of those early books, we don’t have Shakespeare. There are no manuscripts, and our modern editions are entirely dependent on those early printings; they are our only access to Shakespeare.
Q. As a scholar of traditional texts, how do you feel about e-books and e-readers? Do you own one?
A. At the moment, I don’t enjoy them. Someone gave me a Kindle, but I don’t really use it. The book as technology is a pretty wonderful one, compared to the e-reader. It doesn’t need an external power source. Its battery doesn’t need to be charged. It has search functions that are less relevant [picks up a book and skims it elegantly] … I don’t know how you’re going to put that into print. “Picking up a book and skimming it elegantly.” But this is a pretty good search function. But the e-reader clearly has advantages. You and I, if we live until March, may very well go away for break. And inevitably, because we are geeky, which is why we are here —
A. … and successful here —
Q. Thank you.
A. … no doubt in addition to packing a bathing suit, hopefully, and a T-shirt, will probably take something to read. I, for years, have gone off with a suitcase filled with books. It’s inconvenient, heavy, and I don’t have all the books I need. E-readers solve a lot of those problems. But then they create new ones, some of which are hardware problems, like better backlighting, that are increasingly being solved. [But] there’s an aesthetic, and kinesthetic reality, to the book. I like holding books, I like feeling books. I’m embarrassed to say I like the smell of books. So I do have a kind of fetish relationship with the book. I worry that for this younger generation, longer books — publishers are calling them “p-books” now, as in “print books” —
A. This is the language of the trade now. I worry that they will find the long book, the p-book, increasingly illegible, unreadable. I think it will privilege shorter forms.
Q. Speaking of shorter forms, do you tweet?
A. I just don’t get Twitter. It may be generational. There are different types of literacies — your generation is “differently” literate. Facebook, Twitter, texting. But I think the 140 character limit on Twitter produces both narcissism and banality [laughs]. But, if Twitter worked not with a 140 character limit, but with a 140 character insistence — so that the only tweet that you could produce had to be exactly 140 characters — it might become interesting, a kind of haiku of the new media. I like that, put that in the paper. You need to make sure that everything I’m saying makes sense, and I will object if you quote sentences directly as they emerge from my insane, exhausted brain.
Q. What’s your least favorite part of teaching undergraduates?
A. Grading papers. When I began teaching, I actually loved it. I felt it was the most immediate and important way to engage with my students. More recently, I’ve become phobic about it. I bargain with myself when I have to grade them. I procrastinate. I’ve started to leave milk and cookies next to the pile, hoping that elves will grade them. It has not yet worked, though I’ve found some shoes, mysteriously cobbled.
Q. And your favorite?
A. The best part is being surprised by my students. Yale students are the best students I’ve ever taught, and they are endlessly capable of surprise. There is an extraordinary alertness, agility and intellectual ambition with which they read. It delights me. I tend not to teach the same course from year to year. Even if it’s notionally the same course, I always change it. I don’t keep lecture notes from the year before. I don’t know that that’s a rational thing to do. It’s not that I forget what I said the year before, but I have a slightly different set of interests, mainly influenced by my conversations with students after the lectures. They are genuinely interested, and intense, full readings of the text emerge from them that have little to do with the critical agenda I have laid out. This is utterly unique to Yale.
Q. Any weird Yale experiences?
A. When I first was thinking of coming to Yale, my wife and I came up to campus without telling anybody — we didn’t want to be part of a “recruiting effort.” It was a misty February early evening, the first evening I had ever been on the Yale campus, and it looked beautiful — the neo-Gothic architecture in the fog — and then people started to come at us in strange costumes. It was as if we were in a Fellini movie. It turned out it was Tap Night for senior societies, and we had no idea what Tap Night was. My wife and I looked at each other and said, “Either this is the most extraordinary place in the world, and we have to come, or this place is really bizarre.” We weren’t sure if this was how Yale students typically behave.
Q. Well, there’s a lot of dressing up that goes on around here.
A. Yes, and apparently “dressing-off” too [laughs, gestures as if to take off his shirt].
Q. That too. So if you could have a drink with any Renaissance writer or poet, who would you pick?
A. As a literary critic, it would be wonderful for me to talk to Shakespeare, and to have him confirm — or deny — much of what I think about him. Shakespeare is often associated with a “gentle” or “sweet” disposition, and I think he was a nice, capacious man of enormous intelligence and sympathy, which is why he was a wonderful writer. He was clearly a fabulous, careful listener. But for that very reason, I think that if I could go to a pub with a Renaissance writer, it wouldn’t be Shakespeare — he would be listening to me the whole time. I’d rather go have a drink with Thomas Nash. He was an incredibly productive prose writer, enormously energetic, irreverent, scurrilous, ambitious. I suspect he’d be the more interesting barroom conversationalist. You know, I want this article to have a strong ending — you have to really close this out. Are you going to use this for the ending?