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I really kind of got sucked into "Why Read" by Mark Edmunson by surprise, literary criticism is not my fortes, and I've never really fully understood the critical approach properly enough to get a good cohesive paper written. I also was drawn in by the author's suggestion that literature can be a new religion, a religion of sorts I could really believe in. I was also intrigued by his comments on modern pop culture. And then, on a plus side, it is a short book.
I personally like how the book is open and an easier read than other books I have picked up on literary criticism. He talk about the humanities field is a more normal sense, like when you have a teacher that talks to you as a person and not just a student. Gives you that boost of confidence that makes you feel that the teacher sees you as an equal.
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At the same time the point is brought up on how the English department as a whole has to almost market themselves as a fun major to take because the enrollees in the English majors is on a decline. Edmunson points out that in 1968 more than 21 percent of all bachelor degrees in America were humanities degrees; by 1993 that same total had fallen to 13 percent, and continues to fall. His next topic in response to this is one that I am personally conflicted on. He talks on how the humanities department has loosened up in order to draw in more students to the degrees. For instance losing up the grading system and relaxing on the requirements to earn the major. As a student I can't help but to admit I like it but at the same time I don't think that is right. As much as I want an easy grade, I want to be challenged. Getting an easy grade is great but you don't learn as much as you would have if you had to work harder for the grade.
He then brings in his take on religion, making a point to talk about the University of Virginia at which he teaches. Talking about how the university's founder, Thomas Jefferson, had at one time had book in the great rotunda of the school and looked to those books as his deities, so to speak. He described them as Jefferson's deities, invested with powers of transport and transformation equal to anything the great gods possessed. As much as I believe in a higher power I really liked how the author wrote this. Literature as a whole has a way of taking you many places as well as teaching you many lessons you may not realize at an initial reading.
He continues on bring up the subject of reading for truth and how absurd it sounds. He also explains that people read for truth because that the truth that we come to in society is not enough for us that we need to read to try and find a truth that we can believe in. He presents that that is why people go to literature and enter into the humanities major is to find the truth that fits them on a more personal level. And the way to find this truth is in the painters, poets, composers, novelists and historians. Taking the major and delving into the various arts that are presented there, gives the student another chance to find that universal truth that they believe and missed the first time around. Edmunson's description of society and how we come to make certain assumptions is what keeps me interested in this book. It is a fresh outlook, in my opinion, that to have an author and better yet a professor himself talk about literature and the humanities like this.
He then moves on to talk about what literary criticism ought to do when it looks at a text. The question a valuable critic should bring up when looking at a text, he claims, is the question "What is life?" Freud was the one that brought up that question after seeing it in Shakespeare's works. Edmunson claims that the valuable critic is one who brings forth the philosophy of life latent in major works of art and imagination. He continues on saying that the critic takes the authors wisdom and presents it to the judgment of the world. This is a great view of how we should look at a text when critiquing it considering that there are many critics out there who do what Edmunson says puts writers into their historical contexts which as a reader you tend to do anyways.
The next thing that the author talks about that peaked my interest was how he talked about the teaching style he is proposing in his text. Edmunson said on page 84 "The classroom I am describing is a free space, one where people can speak their innermost thoughts and bring what is dark to light." This is a classroom ideal that I think a lot more teachers are adopting, in my opinion, from my times in three different universities. From what I observed over the years, is that Edmunson's classroom is on a slow progression into reality. More and more teachers are opening their classroom to more of a discussion of ideals rather than just the presentation of them.
The Author continues on talking about his ideal teaching methods and he brings up the point of influence. Saying that many teachers tend to avoid the topic because they feel that they are going to become propagandists rather than critical thinkers who enjoy critical thought according to Edmunson. Teachers don't want to implant ways of thinking just because of their authority as a teacher or their power over the student's grades. This is a point I have to admit to doing myself. When you have a class, you tend to want to do exactly what the teacher wants to make sure you get a good grade. There are however teacher that give a guideline to an assignment and tell the student to bring their own ideas to light. This way you get the student thinking more creatively and critically as well.
As a whole Edmunson's book is a good easy read but one that deserves more than one sitting. He goes over so many valid points that cover the humanities as a whole hitting in various vital areas. They way he presents his ideas is more like a novel than like a textbook which I think will bring more students to read it rather than skim it. His views on the ideal classroom and ways of teaching are one that I have been seeing coming to pass in my various classes. This is a book that I plan on keeping and rereading because there is so much he goes over that you really have to read it more than once to let it all sink in.