- Paperback: 160 pages
- Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; Reprint edition (September 1, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1582346089
- ISBN-13: 978-1582346083
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.5 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 31 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #144,273 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Why Read? Paperback – August 11, 2005
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"Thoughtful.striking.Edmundson lobbies for demonstrating literature's importance by teaching it through asking big, risk-taking philosophical questions."
""Why Read? "makes passionate arguments for literature's soul-making potential."
""Why Read?" is an encomium to literature and reading, a passionate argument...Edmundson is dead on target."
"Thoughtful...striking...Edmundson lobbies for demonstrating literature's importance by teaching it through asking big, risk-taking philosophical questions."
"Edmundson's an engaging teacher, earnest, knowledgeable, witty."
"Why Read? makes passionate arguments for literature's soul-making potential."
"Why Read? is an encomium to literature and reading, a passionate argument.Edmundson is dead on target."
"Edmundson's many-faceted argument is forthright, rigorous, and inspiring as he convincingly links literature with hope, and humanism with democracy."
"An engaging blend of social criticism, self-improvement wisdom, and appeal to fellow humanities professors.Edmundson writes with a rare combination of force and humility."
About the Author
Mark Edmundson is NEH/Daniels Family Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Virginia. A prizewinning scholar, he is the author of several book, including the widely praised memoir, Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference.. He has written for the New Republic, the New York Times Magazine, the Nation, and Harper's, where he is a contributing editor.
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He does not like literary theories, particularly of the Marxist variety, because they detract from learning about the ideas expressed by these great authors.
I have highlighted so many of Edmundson's sentences that my Kindle version of the book almost looks like one long string of yellowized words. This is because I like what he says, and respect his insights into teaching today's cable-vision generation.
Thank you Mr. Edmundson.
The author is more than a little concerned that the university has essentially adopted the values and the modus operandi of the broader consumer and entertainment society. A certain superficiality has engulfed our society. Being "hip" and "cool," that is projecting an image, must be the foremost stance taken in life, which excludes both passion and doubt. Multifarious information, often obtained via the Internet, displaces wisdom. That is what students expect within the university. Future technocrats and businessmen need an instrumental, factual education, not a "useless" wholesale examination of values. That entire orientation is to be contrasted with the author's view that "the function of a liberal arts education is to use major works of art and intellect to influence one's Final Narrative, ..., the ultimate set of terms that we use to confer value on experience." The self-doubt and introspection crucial to developing a Final Narrative is outside the boundaries of ubiquitous casualness.
Beyond disinterest in the classics, in criticism directed more towards the humanities professorate, there is the additional concern that literary works are being interpreted with a political agenda, which distorts the original authors' intents and, furthermore, interferes with the educational value of the works. For example, Dickens' novels concerning the horrid social conditions in early industrial England are used in hegemonic critiques not intended by Dickens. Nonetheless, the chiding of those advancing a Foucaultian "normalization and control" of society agenda by grafting such analyses onto literary works, comes across as more than a little disingenuous given the author's overall views.
"Democracy and democratic humanism" - those are the components of the author's "religion." He invites us to "imagine a nation, a world, where people have fuller self-knowledge, fuller self-determination, where self-making is a primary objective not just in the material sphere but in the circles of the mind and heart. We humanities teachers can help create such a world." There is no disagreement with the nobility of the goal here, but where is the reconciliation with the realities of a superficial, consumer ethos and Foucaultian control. In a world of artificiality, how does a student become aware of a need for self-discovery? How can a student possibly know whether such a search is possible in an institution without the assumption that awareness has already been obtained? And then there is the very real possibility of such an enlightened student wrecking on the realities outside the university. We can't all have the safe haven of college tenure to widely explore and espouse eternal truths. At one point the author recognizes that seeking truth is a subversive endeavor. But there seems to be little appreciation for the consequences.
The author disclaims that his approach is one of personal therapy. Yet it does seem to be very much one of personal growth and personal interpretation of the classics. He especially advocates the reading of poetry as being foremost in finding personal truth, which in the view of many is a particularly subjective endeavor. Literature comes before history in his view. Presumably that same ordering applies to any body of knowledge. He seems to require that a work engenders an emotional response, that the work of art can be lived, for it to be considered essential for self-discovery. He specifically discounts works that merely "teach us something about the larger world." This is a most curious position. Broad, historical understanding of political, economic, and social systems would seem to enhance anyone's pursuit of trying to define a life to live. Constructing a personal reality based on the personal interpretation of literary works, devoid of significant context, seems to merely self-indulging, with little to do with attaining intellectual heights.
"Why Read?" is thought-provoking, but puzzles because of the author's unwillingness to complete his analysis. It is clear that the author understands much: the culture is dumbed-down; the university system makes little effort to advance the growth and wisdom of attendees; a business mentality permeates our society; democracy, humanistic or otherwise, is a tenuous project in our society; and tremendous risks are incurred if one confronts this hegemonic situation.
What is to be inferred here? Does the author accept the fact that substantial wealth is a legitimate litmus test in allowing attendance at his employing university, which ultimately will amount to little more than gaining a credential to enter the business world at an elevated position? Where is the call for reform? Where is the political critique? Is he genuinely interested in democratic empowerment?
The book is ultimately just not that satisfying because even though the author is well aware of the landscape, he doesn't seem to be going anywhere with his understanding. What a waste.