Why Read?
Mark Edmundson
Bloomsbury, New York (USA), 1st edition, September 2004 (2004)
147 pages

[January 2005]

Those who know me well also know that reading is one of my passions. I am indeed a voracious reader in little need to be told about its healing effects. So what would attract someone like me to a book titled Why Read? How did Edmundson's book fall in my hands? It was quite by chance. I just happened to be perusing the new books at the local library when this little volume, with a few pages stained by coffee, stood out from the others on the same shelf. I was there looking for something else but after quickly reading a few pages (and, by the way, noticing that there is no table of contents, something quite strange in the non-fiction world) I decided to check it out. Now I am glad I did.

In Why Read?, Mark Edmundson makes an impassionate call to teachers and professors to promote reading from a humanistic point of view that ties directly with the approach taken by our old Renaissance scholars. It is not reading as entertainment that he espouses, the type that has become all too prevalent these days. On the other hand, he is also convinced that most universities these days do not promote the love of reading either, but rather how to dissect, dessecrate and destroy the great works of art we inherited from the past. In the end, Edmundson is trying to justify the relevance of humanities in contemporary life. Literature, philosophy, history, the arts and old languages are no good to pursue a life in business or technology. They do not tell us how to become rich and successful. So, what good are they for?

It's time, no doubt, for a provisional thesis statement: the function of a liberal arts education is to use major works of art and intellect to influence one's Final Narrative, one's outermost circle of commitments. A liberal education uses books to rejuvenate, reaffirm, replenish, revise, overwhelm, replace, in some cases (alas) even help begin to generate the web of words that we're defined by. But this narrative isn't a thing of mere words. The narrative brings with it commitments and hopes. A language, Wittgenstein thought, is a way of life. A new language, whether we learn it from a historian, a poet, a painter, or a composer of music, is potentially a new way to live.

(pp. 31-32)

Wait a minute. Is it not this what our universities are doing anyways? Our professors are using books to assist them in their classes, right? They spend countless hours discussing this or that book, as if one were to obtain from a novel the key to existence itself. Well, no. That is precisely Edmundson's main criticism of contemporary education: we are not teaching our students how to live a book, but only how to dissect it, how to understand it in a given historical context or, even worse, how to be able to interpret whatever we pretty much please in their text. After the influence of Foucault, Derrida and other post-structuralists spread among American campuses like wildfire in the 1970s and 1980s, nobody cares about feeling as the author of the book did. Actually, we have deconstructed the figure of the author itself. We have removed any form of individuality or genius from our works of art, replacing them with structures, interpretations and identities. As a consequence, the love of reading has been replaced with mere hermeneutics, fireworks, a race where the one who comes up with the most shocking interpretation of a given piece wins the prize (incidentally, a particularly amusing side-effect of this new attitude has been the myriad of re-interpretations of hundreds and hundreds of classics as directly caused by the author's supposedly hidden homosexuality, to the point that one is starting to seriously consider if perhaps nobody ever decided to write or paint in the past unless he was gay). Of course, all this is always presented to our youth gift-wrapped in the radical language of critical thinking. But is it truly critical at all? That is precisely what Edmundson wants us to think about.

In general, critical thinking is the art of using terms one does not believe in (Foucault's, Marx's) to debunk worldviews that one does not wish to be challenged by.

What happens when you reach critical thinking unattached to some form of ethics, or some process of character creation? What you help inculcate, I believe, is the capacity to use the intellect in ever more adroit ways. This kind of education does make the student smarter, in some abstract sense. It makes him more adept at the use of what the Frankfurt School thinkers liked to call instrumental reason. This sort of reason conceives the world in terms of problems and solutions. It is prone to abstraction, to the release of the intellect from the emotions, to extreme forms of detachment. The development of instrumental reason is good preparation for doing work in a corporation in which you look only at means and not at ends. You see processes, but not the ultimate performance. Then you go off, the better to enjoy Saturday night.

(p. 44)

In other words, by promoting the radical chic, the superficially "subversive" deconstruction of "oppressive" works by "dead white males", we end up with just nihilism, hordes of students who believe in nothing and feel nothing, but are capable to "research" any piece of work and tell us everything we need to know about its historical, political and social context. Do not get me wrong, the context is important. However, reducing art to the context, the situation, the structure, leaves us with quite a poor image of the essence of humanities and liberal arts. We are not educating technicians, for Christ's sakes! The humanities should (and indeed are, although barely) alive. What a good teacher needs to communicate to the students is precisely the love for these works, the passion for these authors and characters depicted in our novels. He should bring them all up to the front and make it clear how they touch our lives, how they influence what we do and how we live every single day. The problem is that, in order to do this, the teacher needs to believe in something, instead of selling his soul to the faceless bureaucracy of academia, accepting to enter into the meat grinder that forces him to write a thesis about the butlers' literature in 19th century England in the name of specialization. That gives our radical and subversive scholar a chance to climb up the academic ladder, but it does absolutely nothing for our students or our future.

Why did these approaches, these forms of translation, catch on? For many reasons, not insignificant among them the teacher's will to power over the texts that she teaches. But these translating approaches work in part because they're good at school. They give the teacher something coherent to teach. They give the students a portable knowledge, something to take away from the scene. And they give them an illusion of potency over works far more potent than they. Current literary analysis allows students to take up the stance of cool complacency that they, and all of us, have become accustomed to from living in a spectatorial culture. The knowing literary-critical stance may be more difficult to achieve than the TV watcher's accustomed disdain, but the two positions are not unrelated. In both, one assumes an unearned and potentially debilitating superiority. We will not have real humanistic education in America until professors, and their students, can give up the narcissistic illusion that through something called theory, or criticism, they can stand above Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante.

(p. 50)

This is all fine and good, but what does Edmundson propose? Aside from pointing out the defects in our institutions of higher education, does he have something positive to stand for? Does he advance a possible solution, a plan? He actually does, but it entails a radical departure from our contemporary attitude of coolness. As a matter of fact, it implies, to some extent, a return to the past by emphasizing the old fashioned concept of truth:

Literature and truth? The humanities and truth? Come now. What could be more ridiculous? What could be more superannuated than that?

We read literature now for other reasons. We read to assert ourselves, to sharpen our analytical faculties. We read to debunk the myths. We read to know the other. We read, sometimes, for diversion. But read for truth? Absurd. The whole notion of truth was dispatched long ago, tossed on the junk heap of history along with God and destiny and right and all the rest. Read for truth? Why do that?

For the simple reason that for many people, the truth —the circle, the vision of experience— that they've encountered through socialization is inadequate. It doesn't put them into a satisfying relation to experience. That truth does not give them what they want. It does not help them make a contribution to their society. It does not, to advance another step, even allow for a clear sense of the tensions between themselves and the existing social norms, the prevailing doxa. The gay boy can't accept the idea that his every third thought is a sin. The visionary-in-the-making isn't at home with her practical, earth-bound, and ambitious parents. Such people, and I believe most people who go to literature and the liberal arts out of more than mere curiosity are in this group, demand other, better ways to apprehend the world —that is, ways that are better for them. And the best repository for those other ways are the works of poets, as Williams said, and of the painters and composers and novelists and historians.

(p. 52)

But what is this truth that Edmundson wants us to teach? Does he pretend to impose the one and real interpretation of each great work of art?

We all know there is no such thing as a perfect interpretation. In fact, some of the more sophisticated among us have come to believe that interpretation is by necessity interminable. It's a mark of shallowness to believe that we can get to the core of the poem. Do I dare? Do I dare? So says the Prufrock of contemporary academia.

What I take to be worthwhile interpretation is centered on the author. I do not join my colleague E.D. Hirsch in affirming that the author's intention ought to be the measure of the reading at hand. We can never discover as much. There are simply too many levels of the mind that contribute to creation, not all of them responsive to analysis.

No, the art of interpretation is to me the art of arriving at a version of the work that the author —as we imagine him, as we imagine her— would approve and be gratified by. The idea is not perfectly to reproduce the intention; that can never be done. Rathre the objective is to bring the past into the present and to do so in a way that will make the writer's ghost nod in something like approval. That means operating with the author's terms, thinking, insofar as it is possible, the writer's thoughts, reclaiming his world through his language. (...)

The teacher's act of inspired ventriloquism need not be perfect. All that needs to do is to supply a vision, based on the work at hand, that is as ramified as possible and that offers a fertile alternative to what the students in class are likely to belive, or are likely to believe that they believe.

(pp. 53-54)

We are, therefore, far away from the old authoritarian approach to education where the teacher was in charge of handing down the approved interpretation of reality and students could do nothing but memorize it and repeat it. At the same time, Edmundson's proposed solution is also far from the attitude taken by those who simply pretend to reinforce the student's identity through a particular type of minority literature, not to talk about the therapeutic approach that has come to pervade our societies, once again influenced by certain shows in our omnipresent TV set.

It's not an exercise in cheering yourself up. Teachers should feel free to introduce the most appalling visions to their students. To read the Marquis de Sade, with his insistence that sexualized cruelty is the deepest desire of all men and women, is to encounter a way of apprehending life that can qualify as a vital option, if only to some. The objective of this kind of teaching is not to pretend that the Marquis does not exist, or that the disgustingly anti-Semitic Celine is not a writer worth serious study, or that Pound's fascism puts him out of bounds. Rather, it is to encounter such works and put them to the test of imagined experience. What would it be like to go Sade's way? What is to be gained and what lost in the life of the libertine?

(pp. 83-84)

And here is the key of Edmundson's approach: literature as a testing tube of vital choices, as an ever changing laboratory where we experiment with this or that life choice, where we rehearse our different philosophies before applying them to the real world. It is, I believe, an enormously rich approach to humanities, and one that would also force us to be daring enough to dump our politically correct, timid manners that have come to dry up the students' souls as of late.

Incidentally, Edmundson's methodology would also contribute towards solving one of the most pressing issues posed in the last decades, that of the literary canon. Is there a way to objectively discern the good from the bad works of art? Does objectivity exist at all?

Once you know what purpose you want literature to fulfill —the purpose that all things that matter go to fulfill, as Emerson suggested: to inspire— then a span of questions that now bedevils the humanities becomes easier to answer. You can think much more clearly and to better effect about canon formation, about multiculturalism, about cultural studies, about academic research.

The question of canon formation, despite all its fancy baggage, is really a question about what to teach. What books shall we get young people to read? Right now this is a terribly vexed issue for a number of reasons. Traditionalists like to go around snorting about how the new cultural studies types want to replace Brontë novels with bodice rippers off the supermarket racks. But when you ask the traditionalists exactly what makes a Brontë novel more worth reading than a bodice ripper, they often can't come up with much. They talk about subtlety and sophistication and depth, and they take up a condescending pose, the pose smug upper-middle-class types have greeted the unwashed with for hundreds of years. And of course, the cultural studies gang loves this kind of reaction. They're fulfilling their historical function of shocking hell out of the bourgeoisie.

What the defenders of consequential writing need to do is to stand up and say that a Brontë novel can help you live better —can, to use the idiom of this book, better enhance your expanding circle of self than the bodice ripper can. Until the so-called humanists take this step, they're going to be easy prey to the prophets of ersatz novelty.

(p. 121)

This very same litmus test could also be applied to movies, music and even television shows, of course. However, that would require a revolutionary change in our attitude for we would need to turn our backs to the comfortable society of the spectacle that has come to dominate our lives.

In conclusion, it seems to me that Edmundson's approach is the only one that could still work in an advanced society where education is well spread, primary necessities are not a worry and the well established truths of yesteryear are not available anymore. It is indeed the only possible recipe for a firm, solid education in a democratic society, far from both the anything goes of chic postmodernists and the return to the old dogmas proposed by the ultraconservatives, which has become so powerful lately among a nostalgic populace.

[May 2005]

Thoughts that came up to my mind while reading Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? and perusing How to Read and Why.

What are the reasons that drive one to read? Write about the following: reading as a way to learn the practice of reading itself, which furthers our education and our chances to improve our careers; reading as a way to learn how to write, also necessary in many professional settings, no matter how prevalent the audiovisual communication may become; reading purely as pleasure or entertainment; finally, reading to find wisdom, to search for the truth, to experience the other.

Entertainment factor: 6/10
Intellectual factor: 7/10