Conversations with David Mikics

by Michael West

Surprisingly, there are times when David Mikics doesn’t know how to read.

“I still read some books and I think, ‘I don’t know what the good questions are here,’” admits Dr. Mikics, Professor of English and Human Sit instructor. “Even to figure out what the good questions are, you have to turn it over in your mind for quite a while, and talk to other people about it.”

Fortunately, The Honors College is the one of the best settings for both those activities.

“The best thing about Honors is simply the conversations,” says Dr. Mikics, who has taught in the Honors College, on and off, since 1990. “With team teaching, you really get to interact with your fellow teachers, and there are more intimate conversations for the students, as well.”

Many of those conversations take place in Human Sit discussion sections, which often begin with an argument about what was actually said in lecture.

“Someone will say ‘The lecture was about this,’ and someone else will say, ‘No, the lecture was about that,’” Dr. Mikics says, laughing. “Those kinds of disagreements are what really train you, and show you that the first thing you have to do to understand something is to understand what you’ve heard or read. So Human Sit is a kind of schooling in how to listen carefully and understand someone else.”

What you “hear” in Honors, as Dr. Mikics points out, can be the words of a lecture, or, just as often, the words on a page. That act of reading is in fact the subject of his next scholarly project. Tentatively titled Lost In A Book, the book aims to help readers read better, by describing and encouraging the experience of being completely consumed by one’s reading.

“The book is a kind of response that addresses the art of reading in the Internet age, so it starts from a reflection on what’s happening right now,” he says. “Because we’re always hooked up to the Internet, reading is really very different – we read more casually, and we tend to skim. Because we often read just to gather information, we don’t always devote our best resources to reading. What I’m trying to encourage is to immerse yourself, to sink yourself in a book—to turn off the Internet, turn off the phone, and try reading as a total experience.”

One of the most prolific professors in Honors, Dr. Mikics’ most recent books include Who Was Jacques Derrida? and The Art of the Sonnet. Both are works aimed at the kind of readers Honors’ students tend to become as adults: smart, well read, and—though not necessarily academics—curious.

Though he now leads discussions and gives lectures in Human Sit, Dr. Mikics wasn’t always so talkative. As a boy in New Jersey and a college student at New York University, he was anything but chatty.

“I was a lot quieter than you might expect, though I did always aspire to be one of those people at the front, always talking in class,” he says. “In classes I liked, I tended to think for a long time about what I wanted to say, and maybe toward the end of every other class, I would blurt something out.”

Dr. Mikics’ writing, now far more refined than those collegiate spasmodic blurts, currently concerns the American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dr. Mikics is working on an annotated and illustrated edition of Emerson’s essays and poems, to be published by Harvard University Press. Slowly reading through all of Emerson’s 17 volumes of journals, Dr. Mikics says, has been a great pleasure, as well as a major challenge.

“As you read more of Emerson, you find that he’s continually throwing you off your feet, and making you rethink things in a new way,” he says. “He is a very intense pleasure, but one that also turns you upside down.”

It’s exactly the kind of experience that makes you remember that sometimes, you don’t yet know how to read.