Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why Read?

On pages 6-7 of Why Read?, Mark Edmundson writes
Universities have become sites not for human transformation, but for training and for entertaining. Unconfronted by major issues, students use the humanities as they can. They use them to prepare for lucrative careers. They acquire marketable skills. Or, they find in their classes sources of easy pleasure. They read to enjoy, but not to become other than they are. “You must change your life,” says Rilke’s sculpture of Apollo to the beholder. So says every major work of intellect and imagination, but in the university now—as in the culture at large—almost no one hears.

When I picked up this book to begin to read it, I had some fairly high expectations. For the most part, I enjoy reading. Literature classes offer a chance for me to explore works that maybe I would not consider reading on my own otherwise, whether it be because I have heard negative reviews of the books in question or because I haven’t even heard of the books in the first place. So this book, Why Read?, a book about reading, seemed great. I really thought I would enjoy it—enjoy being the operative word.

And then I start reading this book and here’s this Edmundson guy telling me that I am totally, utterly, entirely wrong, and I probably won’t learn anything if I’m doing it to enjoy it. He accuses today’s college-student population of being completely consumer-driven, and incapable of improvement and change because we want everything we do in life to entertain us. I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting to enjoy what we do here in college. There is a difference between entertainment and enjoyment, and Edmundson seems to have made them one and the same. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing with your life, in or out of college, then why do it? With our undergraduate studies, we are preparing for the rest of our lives. It is perfectly fine to want to enjoy it, especially if it costs $25,000 a year. So what, instead, is the “point” of reading, and college overall, according to Edmundson? What is his definition of “enjoying” reading, and what is yours?


  1. I agree with you when you say that we should find enjoyment in the things we do—whether it is reading or what we choose to study in college (or anything else, really). While I think that Edmundson is overly critical of those that look to literature for enjoyment and not “expand themselves,” I do see his point. Whether it is something we study or read, we should be able to utilize the them to not only better ourselves (though not necessarily all of the time), but even learn something about themselves whether it is positive or not.—if we cannot evolve from it than why should it exist at all?

    I would also have to agree with him when he says that education has become consumer-driven, because it is true—at least in some respect. I have met many people that say they are majoring in _______ because they want to go to grad school, law school, medical school or what-have-you, so that they can become a ______ and make however much money. He isn’t necessarily saying this is wrong, but he is saying that people are not going to school to learn and better themselves anymore. It is just one stop they have to make until they get to whatever destination they plan on getting to.—self discovery is not important (or not as important as he thinks it should be) anymore to a significant number of people. I am not saying that we should all act the way he thinks we should, but I can understand why he feels this way. I think that while college should ideally lead us to better paying jobs in the grand world of “success,” we should derive enjoyment from it—but I do think that we should evolve from it—but not solely from the classes we take but the people we meet and the experiences we go through—because it is virtually impossible, in my opinion, for the courses we take (alone) to make us “better “ or “worse” people.

  2. Edmundson seems to believe that enjoying literature and literature to expand oneself cannot happen simultaneously. He talks about students in the sciences or economics and how much of their education consists of what seems like training instead of learning or expanding. This may be true, I don't really know, but I don't see how he can then go on to criticize the way today's liberal arts students learn.
    For me at least, I would not be able to expand knowledge of myself or change as a person without enjoying the material. If I didn't enjoy it, I would probably avoid it or do the bare minimum. This intentional lack of immersion obviously wouldn't result in me gaining a stronger sense of self. I think it is necessary to enjoy the literature to be able to use it to "expand oneself." I'm glad I enjoy what I study and I'm even glad that it entertains me a lot of the time, and that is why by the time I'm done with school I will be able to answer the big "who am I?" question.

  3. Edmundson appears to have a distinct, personal definition for the word “enjoyment.” If we are to read through this particular lens, enjoyment has a direct link to a self-centered quality that Edmundson is convinced that all students of this generation, despite personality or background, is guilty of exuding. Therefore, he finds this idea of enjoyment only in superficiality. If I am interpreting his work in the way he wished, Edmundson accuses modern students of reading in a way that only breaches the initial layer, a layer of literature that does not require students to struggle and then ponder upon their own lives deeply. He (possibly) believes that we simply read to attain the most basic pleasure, to relax or to have a nice time.

    Part of what I have deduced from Edmundson’s definition of “enjoyment” is that he seems to believe that struggle, frustration and irritation are completely void when modern students consider this term. If this is his position, I completely disagree. There have been numerous times while reading poetry, narratives, or essays that I found myself having to truly work at understanding the author’s perspective and finding how to apply the work to my life. Although the process requires serious concentration, patience, and re-reading, I find it humbling and encouraging (and thus enjoyable) that we as students do not have knowledge of everything, that there are perspectives and ideas that we do not understand.