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Why Read? Paperback – August 11, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-1582346083 ISBN-10: 1582346089 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; Reprint edition (August 11, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582346089
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582346083
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.4 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #58,949 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Extending the argument of his tome Literature Against Philosophy: Plato to Derrida, Edmundson laments the state of liberal arts teaching—and, despite his protestations to the contrary, effectively caricatures critical theory as the soulless antithesis to his own humanistic pedagogical ideals. While a stylish, erudite piece of rhetoric, Edmundson’s book is dated, rooted as it is in the author’s Harper’s article of 1997 and in the culture wars of that decade. Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, claims he is not "antitheory," but a humanist who believes a liberal arts education ought to expand minds rather than shut them down. For him, critical theory comes "between" the reader and the power of great books, distracting students from the big questions concerning life and how best to live it—questions central to a democracy. As an alternative approach, Edmundson permits students to identify with characters in a naïve manner currently out of favor in the academy and highlights the author’s voice (a technique he calls "ventriloquism"). Edmundson gives examples of how he teaches classics from Wordsworth to Orwell and takes positions on canonicity, multiculturalism and pop culture. Yet for all its learning and elegance, Edmundson’s challenge to teachers might have done more to rejuvenate or deepen the tired debate in which it engages had its observations extended beyond his own classroom.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Reading literature nurtures our intelligence, our imagination, and our very soul. So believes Edmundson, a professor at the University of Viriginia, as so many great thinkers have believed over the centuries, writers Edmundson quotes with passion and expertise as he places literature at the very heart of a liberal-arts education, which he fears is becoming an endangered tradition. An eloquent advocate, Edmundson continues the invaluable refresher course on the significance of the humanities that he's been so ably conducting in Harper's magazine and in his previous book, Teacher (2002). Here he objects to the commercialization of higher education as students are recast as consumers and instruction is reduced to job training. Edmundson feels that students deserve, and need, more. He avers, "The purpose of a liberal arts education is to give people an enhanced opportunity to decide how they should live their lives" and that literature is "the major cultural source of vital options." Edmundson's many-faceted argument is forthright, rigorous, and inspiring as he convincingly links literature with hope and humanism with democracy. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Thought provoking book.
Amazon Customer
Since I was expecting something of a diatribe against critical theory, pop culture studies, and all that jazz, I also found this book to be admirably even-handed.
Crazy Fox
I often tell my students that the best literature is stuff that one can read over and over and over again, and it gets better every time.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

65 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Michael Pollan on September 12, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Edmundson has written the most provocative essay on the "crisis in the humanities" since Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. Unlike that book, however, Why Read? is itself eminently readable-- in fact a great pleasure from first page to last. Teachers in particular will find Edmundson's diagnosis and prescriptions bracing; he reminds us what got us into books in the first place, and why reading great works is indispensable to living the good life. Whether you agree with him or not, Edmundson's swift, lively polemic is already ingiting a debate we badly need to have.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Scott Gunem on January 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Mark Edmundson's book will make you wish that you had studied English at the University of Virginia and that you had been fortunate enough to have been in one of Prof. Edmundson's classes. (I did not have this good fortune.) Edmundson's passion for life and learning, which no doubt makes him an outstanding professor, also makes this book such a pleasure to read.

Edmundson's argument in support of the examined life is all the more compelling because it is so democratic. Edumundson believes that the life of the mind is available to all, not just to a privileged elite. Thomas Jefferson would be proud of Mark Edmundson and glad to have him on the faculty of his university.

But you're already an avid reader? You read and you know why you read. Do you really need a book entitled "Why Read?" I think so. Edmundson's argument is really much broader than the title would seem to indicate, and he will also renew your interest in reading and reading widely.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By ra2sky on June 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a wise, short, and difficult book. For example, he includes a fascinating discussion using religion as a jumping-off point for resolving post-modernism's overly relativistic thinking. Edmundson focuses on deep questions for readers - what does your reaction to a book say about you? Why do you like a character and how does he/she reflect you?

I did find large portions of this book inaccessible--I haven't read Derrida, I am not particularly well versed in Shakespeare. I suppose I read mainly for pleasure and only partly for deep personal reflection. Edmundson would probably say--and rightly so--that this is because I am certainly a participatant/victim of the consumerism of the liberal arts education! And maybe that is one of his most important points. In any case, this was a stimulating read but it may make some readers feel intellectually inadequate.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Wyote VINE VOICE on June 8, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I kind of got sucked into this book by surprise--literature and literary criticism are not at all my fields, and I've never really sympathized with people who would choose them as a field. (My own primary interests are religious studies, and the philosophy of science).

I got sucked in by the author's suggestion that literature can be a new religion, a secular religion. I got sucked in by his comments on modern pop culture. And then, since it's a short book, I kept reading.

One of the key issues in the contemporary university world, in case you don't already know, is how the humanities fields can justify themselves in comparison with science. Science has become the measure against which the humanities are judged and found wanting. So what can the humanities do? They try to deal with science in various ways.

I like Edmundson's implied answer: ignore science. Almost no one from the humanities dares to take this approach. But after all, does poetry ever try to do the same thing that science does? I wager, never. Thus, poetry has value as poetry, and criticism as an understanding and appreciation of poetry, with no scientific pretensions at all. Many arts departments have managed to learn this lesson thoroughly, but evidently literature is not.

Edmundson goes on: literature exists to help us become better people. (Science doesn't do this: if Edmundson is right, obviously we need more literature in this world!) Literature helps us find our way, existentially, when we are lost--the way religion used to. The role of a literature teacher, then, is to enable the student to encounter the literature, to be changed by the literature, and then to freely accept it or reject it.

I teach literature occasionally, as if by accident, when it falls to me.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Robert O. Leaver on December 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
In his book, "Why Read," Mark Edmundson writes that I once possessed "movie-star" good looks. That is not why I recommend the book. People who read to be sparked creatively, enriched and spiritually uplifted will be hard pressed to find a more satisfying book this season. There is one way. If you start by reading his earlier memoir, "Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference," so that you have a sense of who Edmundson is, you'll get even more out of this book.

Mark Edmundson is an earnest, honest, intelligent and disciplined teacher. What's more, he loves his students and work in the purest sense. He enters into relationship with them with an open mind, which is to say he attends and listens without predisposition, motive or bias. When he tells us to approach literature in the same way, to allow it its "maximum advocacy," he is both modeling and advocating the same message. The man lives what he teaches and it makes for grace and power, whether speaking or writing.

As Edmundson explains so elegantly, the real issue is not why we should read but how we should live. With the tail of our economic system increasingly wagging the dog of our political system - and swatting our freedoms in the process, it has become a critical question. Are we, as individuals as well as a society, going to proclaim our faith in ourselves and truly listen to one another, or are we going to give in to fear and assert to the exclusion of listening? Edmundson has the faith in himself to listen and he teaches us how to develop that same faith in ourselves by listening to ourselves through literature. Though short and sweet, "Why Read" is a profoundly wise and inspiring book.
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