Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why DO we read?

I became an English major for a couple of reasons. One, because I love to read, and two, because I’ve “gotten” a lot out of what I’ve read (and wanted to share this awesome avenue of discovery with others – yeah, I’m English Ed.). For the most part, I have enjoyed my college English courses – I’ve learned a lot about different time periods, authors, genres, movements, and schools of thought, literary and otherwise. I’ve learned how to analyze works and to unearth a lot of essential questions about humanity that they pose. My studies have been, as a whole, gratifying. But I must say that I agree wholeheartedly with Edmundson’s argument on page 60:

But asking critical questions should not devolve into a mere parlor game. That is, we should not teach our students that the aim of every reading is to bring up the questions that might debunk the wisdom at hand, and then leave it at that. We must ask the question of belief. Is this poem true? Can you use this poem? Or are you living in a way that’s better than the poem suggests you might live? To these queries, we should expect only heartfelt answers.
By refusing to ask such questions once we have coaxed the work’s vision forward, we are leaving our students where we found them.

In my experiences, though these great “essential questions” are always POSED in lecture or discussion, I don’t feel like they’re ever actually DISCUSSED. They're very rarely applied directly to our real, modern-day lives, and even more rarely do we actually interact with them in a personal way. WHY are we reading a particular work? How does it specifically pertain to us? How can it help us? What is it saying to the world today?

What about you? Do you find that your classrooms center on the “culture of cool” (Edmundson's term for a general depersonalization of the classroom [and the modern-day culture at large] in place of students’ possibly-embarrassing genuine investment and self-discovery)? If so, has this been beneficial to you as a student of English? As an individual in your everyday life? Have you ever actually been changed by a work of literature? Is this growth of the reader even important or necessary? Is literature the appropriate venue for this kind of growth/self-discovery?

Although I agree that Edmundson’s rhetoric is a bit extreme at times (especially regarding the ineffectiveness of the modern-day liberal arts college), his focus on literature as a tool for the reader to discover his/her Final Narrative matches my views well. As a reader, I have always attempted to extract core truth(s) from literary works, test whether these statements are valid against the backdrop of my life, and then evaluate whether it’s necessary for me to alter my opinions or lifestyle based on this new knowledge. I do also believe that literature can and does serve other important purposes – as a tool to record history, or as an aesthetic pleasure, for example – and that the dissection of works via the New Criticism method can be illuminatingly worthwhile. However, in my opinion, Edmundson’s assertions capture what I have always found to be literature’s highest calling: it asserts the truth that someone else has discovered, and presents it to me to ponder and perhaps adopt in a life-changing sort of way.


  1. I'll start out by saying I do support a more generalized idea of what Edmundson is presenting. That being said, he is a tad over zealous attributing all responsibility of growth and cultural salvation upon literature. Literature certainly holds a high place in the pantheon of arts yet I have to say that other mediums have inspired and continue to inspire me to this day. Edmundson's call to use literature as a sort of existential guide to one's core values (Final Narrative is a tad too extreme for me) I definitely endorse. Books have changed my life in the past, or to put it less extremely readjusted my view of life.
    However I don't see his supposed "culture of cool". I can think two high school teachers that have given me inspiration to take my desired path into English education. Their passion and love for literature and the humanities were passed on to me, and I would hope to pass it on further. I obviously agree that teachers should serve as conduits between the author, and the message that the book provides.
    I just have to disagree with Edmundon’s limited view of self discovery and growth however. Growth should not be put within the limits of literature just as literature shouldn’t be put within the limits Edmunson’s “culture of cool” gives it. Growth is important, but it is not within my bounds to determine the means and the end of anothers growth.

  2. I totally agree with your desire for "more" when it comes to literature, and the way in which it is treated in the classroom. I, too, share your frustration (if it may be so named) concerning "parlor games" and the lack of vivacity during discussion. I remember looking around my english 300 classroom and wondering why no one was expressively moved by the idea of the panopticon, or Nietzsche's nihilistic thinking and German Ideology. I do wonder why, as students, we are not moved to do, to revolutionize. Perhaps that is not some people's nature. But is it biological, or societal? I wonder when complacency and half discussed truth became the classroom norm, the general consensus. I do know that literature is living, with the ability to enlighten, expose, and transform. Such can only take place, however, if the reader acknowledges the life it holds, which is what I believe Edmundson is getting at. In all, it's nice to know a fellow scholar of English is not okay with floating questions without real life application.

  3. One thing that I do agree with is Edmundsons idea of the "culture of cool". I think that many people in my generation are practicioners of it, and at some point I think people should break out of this shell and broadcast individualtiy a little more often. However,Ihave to agree with the extremism of the final narrative. First off, everyone has different values, beliefs, modes of learning etc. Who is Edumundson to say that a web series could never be on par with the influential power of "Gone With The Wind". Times change, and with those changes the method growth changes as well.