Author: Paul Colby

In the end, no one really missed it. Some of the older faculty members in chemistry and economics had routinely enjoyed mid-morning coffee with Dr. Milstein, the cranky Americanist, who read them depictions of anal sex and urine showers from Henry Miller and John Updike. Out of habit they went looking for him one day and found the entire English wing empty, the bookshelves rifled, loose wires hanging from the ceilings of the classrooms, water dripping from rusted drinking fountains. They shrugged, looked at their watches, and decided to head to the library to see if they could find some tasty prose on their own: they’d heard good things about Nicholson Baker.

At one time, every student in the University was required to take First-Year Writing, but the head of the English Department argued that requiring English when Arabic, Swahili, and Hindi weren’t required was just another example of white European privilege, so the Faculty Senate scotched the requirement. If students wanted writing instruction, they could take the course voluntarily. But they didn’t take it voluntarily. Most students knew that good writing skills could help them write brisk, lucid application letters when they had to go out and look for jobs. But composition teachers weren’t interested in helping them write better. They used up class time having the students watch movie trailers and clips from The Office, and the students decided they could do those things on their own.

Students who had always enjoyed reading and wanted to explore the teeming universe of books were disappointed to learn, from their English teachers, that literature was merely a polite evasion of the real forces at work in the world. English majors gradually began switching to fields with the kind of subject matter that their English teachers had told them was much more important than the mere telling of stories—criminology, public policy, genetics, disability studies. Meanwhile, budding poets and novelists learned that the notion of the “author” was merely an abstract construct, that books were actually the products of impersonal social forces, while the so-called individual writer was the passive instrument of these commercial and political interests. Eventually, the University’s aspiring writers gave up writing altogether and took up cross-stitch or video game design, or just spent most of their time stoned.

Once the School of Cybernetic Neurology took over what used to be the English wing, all three floors were brimming with activity. Each office was equipped with its own server; the classroom walls were converted into whiteboards, filled from top to bottom with programming code; students moved through the halls excitedly discussing the latest theories in neural signaling; the rusted drinking fountains were replaced with state-of-the-art water coolers.

However, some of the books that once filled the offices in the English wing had been left behind. One of them, a dog-eared paperback copy of Paradise Lost, was being used as a paperweight by a specialist in synaptic networks. Idly skimming the book one afternoon, she noticed that there was a distinct alternation between reinforced and unreinforced syllables, a binary pattern with subtle variations; she wondered what purpose this served. After some computer modeling, followed by experimentation on human subjects, she learned that this type of syllabic rhythm stimulated pleasure centers in the brain, releasing endorphins useful in the treatment of depression, bipolar disorder, and OCD.

Her work reached a wide audience in the scientific community, and she ended up winning a Nobel Prize in medicine. That same year, the Nobel Prize in literature was discontinued.