Authors: Mark Edmundson
makes passionate arguments for literature's soul-making potential."
—Raleigh News and Observer
"Edmundson's many-faceted argument is forthright, rigorous, and inspiring as he convincingly links literature with hope, and
humanism with democracy."
—Los Angeles Times
"Edmundson argues that books are more than just vitamins for the brain. They literally can change the direction of a person's
life... Why Read? is a focused appeal to students and teachers at the college level to use literature as a springboard into
discussions about what matters deeply in life: questions of love, honor, heroism, work and spirituality."
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
"A passionate argument...Edmundson is dead on target."
—Washington Post Book World
"Heavy stuff that makes you envy Edmundson's students... Edmundson's incisive mind analyzes what's gone wrong with education...
he also goes a long way toward analyzing what's gone wrong with the country."
—Palm Beach Post
"An eloquent advocate...Edmundson feels that students deserve, and need, more."
"Engaging and controversial."
"A passionate, lucid defense of the life-changing potential of an education in the humanities...an engaging blend of social
criticism, self-improvement wisdom, and appeal to fellow humanities professors. Why Read? is also beautifully articulated;
Edmundson writes with a rare combination of force and humility."
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference
Nightmare on Main Street: Angels,
Sado-Masochism and the Culture of Gothic
Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida:
A Defence of Poetry
Wild Orchids and Trotsky:
Messages from American Universities (ed.)
Towards Reading Freud: Self-Creation in Milton,
Wordsworth, Emerson and Sigmund Freud
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Edmundson
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from
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Publishing, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, New York and London Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers
All papers used by Bloomsbury Publishing are natural, recyclable products made from wood grown in well-managed forests. The
manufacturing processes conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
Edmundson, Mark, 1952-
Why read? / Mark Edmundson.—1st U.S. ed.
1. Literature—Study and teaching (Higher)—United States.
2. College students—Books and reading—United States.
3. Education, Higher—United States. 4. Books and reading
—United States. I. Title.
First published in the United States by Bloomsbury Publishing
in 2004 This paperback edition published in 2005
1 3 5 79 10 8 6 4 2
Typeset by Hewer Text Ltd, Edinburgh
Printed in the United States of America by Quebecor World Fairfield
For Matthew, Beloved Son
Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means
go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar"
READING THROUGH A volume of modern poetry not long ago, I came upon some lines that seemed to me to concentrate a strong and
true sense of what there is to gain from great writing. The lines were by William Carlos Williams and they ran this way: "Look
at / what passes for the new," Williams wrote. "You will not find it there but in / despised poems. / It is difficult / to
get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there." Williams asserts that though
all of us are surrounded all the time with claims on our attention—film, TV, journalism, popular music, advertising, and the
many other forms that pass for the new—there may be no medium that can help us learn to live our lives as well as poetry,
and literature overall, can.
People die miserably every day for lack of what is found in despised poems—in literary artwork, in other words, that society
at large denigrates. My own life and the lives of many others I've known offer testimony for what Williams has to say. Reading
woke me up. It took me from a world of harsh limits into expanded possibility. Without poetry, without literature and art,
I (and I believe many others, too) could well have died miserably. It was this belief in great writing that, thirty years
ago, made me become a teacher.
Yet most of the people who do what I do now—who teach literature at colleges and universities—are far from believing Williams.
Nearly all of them would find his lines overstated and idealizing. Many now see all of literature—or at least the kind of
literature that's commonly termed canonical—as an outmoded form. It's been surpassed by theory, or rendered obsolete with
the passage of time. To quote Williams on the value of poetry, without suitable condescension, at the next meeting of the
Modern Language Association would be to invite no end of ridicule.
Does everyone who teaches literature hold this dismissive attitude? Not quite. But those who are better disposed to literary
art tend to an extreme timidity. They find it embarrassing to talk about poetry as something that can redeem a life, or make
it worth living. (Though they may feel these things to be true.) Those few professors who still hold literature in high regard
often treat it aesthetically. Following Kant, they're prone to remove literary art from the push and toss of day-to-day life.
They want to see poems and novels as autonomous artifacts that have earned the right to be disconnected from common experience.
One admires great literary works as aesthetic achievements. But on actual experience, they should have no real bearing at
Other professors who still call themselves humanists are often so vague in their articulated sense of what great writing offers—it
cultivates sensitivity; it augments imagination; it teaches tolerance—that their views are easily swept aside by the rigorous-sounding
debunkers. Yet Williams is anything but vague. The most consequential poems offer something that is new—or, one might say
"truth"—that makes significant life possible. Without such truth, one is in danger of miserable death, the kind of death that
can come from living without meaning, without intensity, focus, or design.
The moral of this book is that Williams has it right. Poetry—literature in general—is the major cultural source of vital options
for those who find that their lives fall short of their highest hopes. Literature is, I believe, our best goad toward new
beginnings, our best chance for what we might call secular rebirth. However much society at large despises imaginative writing,
however much those supposedly committed to preserve and spread literary art may demean it, the fact remains that in literature
there abide major hopes for human renovation. This book is addressed to teachers. We teachers of literature, and of the humanities
overall, now often stand between our students and their best aspirations, preventing them from getting what literary art has
to offer. With all the resources at hand to help our students change their lives for the better, and despite real energy and
dedication, most of us still fail in our most consequential task. Purportedly guides to greater regions of experience, we
have become guards on the parapets, keeping others out.
This book is also written to students and potential students of literature—to all those who might dream of changing their
current state through encounters with potent imaginations. You are invited to read over the shoulders of your teachers. You
are invited, if need be, to supplant them: For much of what teachers can offer, you can provide for yourself. It is often
simply a matter of knowing where to start. It's a matter of knowing what you might ask for and get from a literary education.
In Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, there is a passage that gets close to the core of what a literary education should
be about. The passage offers a deep sense of what we can ask from a consequential book. Proust speaks with the kind of clarity
that is peculiarly his about what he hopes his work will achieve. In particular, he reflects on the relation he wants to strike
with his readers. "It seemed to me," he observes, "that they would not be 'my' readers but readers of their own selves, my
book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers—it would
be my book but with it I would furnish them the means of reading what lay inside themselves. So that I would not ask them
to praise me or to censure me, but simply to tell me whether 'it really is like that.' I should ask whether the words that
they read within themselves are the same as those which I have written."
What Proust is describing is an act of self-discovery on the part of his reader. Immersing herself in Proust, the reader may
encounter aspects of herself that, while they have perhaps been in existence for a long time, have remained unnamed, undescribed,
and therefore in a certain sense unknown. One might say that the reader learns the language of herself; or that she is humanly
enhanced, enlarging the previously constricting circle that made up the border of what she's been. One might also say, using
another idiom, one that has largely passed out of circulation, that her consciousness has been expanded.
Proust's professed hope for his readers isn't unrelated to the aims that Emerson, a writer Proust admired, attributes to the
ideal student he describes in "The American Scholar": "One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, 'He that
would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.' There is then creative reading as well
as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with
manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world."
For Emerson, the reader can do more than discover the language of herself in great writing. Emerson's reader uses a book as
an imaginative goad. He can begin compounding visions of experience that pass beyond what's manifest in the book at hand.
This, presumably, is what happened when Shakespeare read Holinshed's Chronicles or even Plutarch's Lives. These are major
sources for the plays, yes, but in reading them Shakespeare made their sentences doubly significant, and the sense of their
authors as broad as the world.
Proust and Emerson touch on two related activities that are central to a true education in the humanities. The first is the
activity of discovering oneself as one is in great writing. The second, and perhaps more important, is to see glimpses of
a self—and too, perhaps, of a world—that might be, a self and world that you can begin working to create. "Reading," Proust
says in a circumspect mood, "is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it; it does not constitute
Proust and Emerson point toward a span of questions that matter especially for the young, though they count for us all, too.
They are questions that should lie at the core of a liberal arts education. Who am I? What might I become? What is this world
in which I find myself? How might it be changed for the better?
We ought to value great writing preeminently because it enjoins us to ask and helps us to answer these questions, and others
like them. It helps us to create and re-create ourselves, often against harsh odds. So I will be talking here about the crafting
of souls, in something of the spirit that Socrates did. "This discussion," Socrates said, referring to one of his philosophical
exchanges, "is not about any chance question, but about the way one should live."
I think that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to give people an enhanced opportunity to decide how they should live
their lives. So I will be talking about the uses of the liberal arts for the conduct of life. I will be describing the humanities
as a source of truth. I will be asking teachers to think back to the days when reading and thinking about books first swept
them in and changed them, and asking them to help their students have that kind of transforming experience.
A reader removed from the debates about the liberal arts that have been going on over the past few decades would, on hearing
the aims for this book, perhaps smile at how superfluous and unoriginal they seem. Of course, universities should present
humanities students with what Matthew Arnold called "the best that is known and thought" and give them the chance to reaffirm
or remake themselves based on what they find.
To the charge of lacking originality, I plead guilty. I have already cited Proust and Emerson; this book will be filled with
the wisdom of many others, often similarly well-known. But as to my argument being superfluous: I can assure you that is not
the case. Universities now are far from offering the kind of experience that Allan Bloom, a writer with whose work I have
something like a love-hate relationship, is describing when he observes that "true liberal education requires that the student's
whole life be radically changed by it, that what he learns may affect his action, his tastes, his choices, that no previous
attachment be immune to examination and hence re-evaluation. Liberal education puts everything at risk and requires students
who are able to risk everything."
By this definition, true liberal education barely exists in America now. It is almost nowhere to be found. We teachers have
become timid and apologetic. We are not willing to ask the questions that matter. Into the void that we have created largely
by our fear, other forces have moved. 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.
Total Entertainment All the Time
I CAN DATE my sense that something was going badly wrong in my own teaching to a particular event. It took place on evaluation
day in a class I was giving on the works of Sigmund Freud. The class met twice a week, late in the afternoon, and the students,
about fifty undergraduates, tended to drag in and slump, looking slightly disconsolate, waiting for a jump start. To get the
discussion moving, I often provided a joke, an anecdote, an amusing query. When you were a child, I had asked a few weeks
before, were your Halloween costumes id costumes, superego costumes, or ego costumes? Were you monsters—creatures from the
black lagoon, vampires, and werewolves? Were you Wonder Women and Supermen? Or were you something in between? It often took
this sort of thing to raise them from the habitual torpor.
But today, evaluation day, they were full of life. As I passed out the assessment forms, a buzz rose up in the room. Today
they were writing their course evaluations; their evaluations of Freud, their evaluations of me. They were pitched into high
gear. As I hurried from the room, I looked over my shoulder to see them scribbling away like the devil's auditors. They were
writing furiously, even the ones who struggled to squeeze out their papers and journal entries word by word.
But why was I distressed, bolting out the door of my classroom, where I usually held easy sway? Chances were that the evaluations
would be much like what they had been in the past: they'd be just fine. And in fact, they were. I was commended for being
"interesting," and complimented for my relaxed and tolerant ways; my sense of humor and capacity to connect the material we
were studying with contemporary culture came in for praise.
In many ways, I was grateful for the evaluations, as I always had been, just as I'm grateful for the chance to teach in an
excellent university surrounded everywhere with very bright people. But as I ran from that classroom, full of anxious intimations,
and then later as I sat to read the reports, I began to feel that there was something wrong. There was an undercurrent to
the whole process I didn't like. I was disturbed by the evaluation forms themselves with their number ratings ("What is your
ranking of the instructor?—1, 2, 3, 4, or 5"), which called to mind the sheets they circulate after a TV pilot plays to the
test audience in Burbank. Nor did I like the image of myself that emerged—a figure of learned but humorous detachment, laid-back,
easygoing, cool. But most of all, I was disturbed by the attitude of calm consumer expertise that pervaded the responses.
I was put off by the serenely implicit belief that the function of Freud—or, as I'd seen it expressed on other forms, in other
classes, the function of Shakespeare, of Wordsworth or of Blake—was diversion and entertainment. "Edmund son has done a fantastic
job," said one reviewer, "of presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable