Why Read?

“The test of a book lies in its power to map or transform a life.  The question we would ultimately ask of any work of art is this:  Can you live it?” (p. 129)

Edmundson wants readers to use works of literature like a guidepost for possibilities–the roads not taken (or those that have yet to be).  The choices of actions or behaviors in a character in a novel allow a reader to see what might be and consider the validity of those choices; would the reader choose the same path?  He pursues literature as a kind of secular Bible–a way to see life filtered through the lenses of characters and authors–while asking questions one might ask of a religious text.  How does this improve my life?  What can I take from this as a lesson?

He calls literature his source for “vital words” because “there are simply too many sorts of human beings, too many idiosynchratic constitutions, for any one map of human nature, or any single guide to the good life, to be adaptable for us all.” (p. 113)

What I do appreciate is that he doesn’t denigrate any type of book; rather, he classifies them into two categories:  canonical and pop culture.  And his distinction between the two are important because neither is a permanently fixed entity.  Canonical books, he says, “ought to be the testing and transforming books that have influenced people in exciting ways over a long period.” (p. 122) Pop culture books are less complex and cannot act as roadmaps for the reader; they operate on wishes.  However, pop culture books do–with a bit of consideration–help a reader discover themselves because what “we’re drawn to can tell us a good deal about what’s not present in our own lives.” (p. 131)  It can “inspire us to search for ways to satisfy hungers we didn’t know we had.” (p. 131)

His view on pop culture books reminded me of an activity on page 105 in Julia Cameron’s The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart.

  • Name your five favorite movies.
  • Name your favorite book from childhood.
  • Name three characters you love.
  • Name three characters you would love to play.
  • Name three topics you think about.
  • Name three topics you read about.

Then you need to look at what all these things have in common:  what issues do they bring to the forefront, what qualities do they possess that you admire or despise, what drives the story.  According to Cameron, this exercise will find the issues that are central to your creativity–the ideas that are at the core of your being.

But, what I appreciate is that although Edmundson gives guidelines he does not dictate what *should* be on your list to read.  Ultimately, it is up to the reader to decide what is going to work for him or her as long as the distinction between the two types is understood–and can be used with that knowledge in mind.


“The best beginning reader is often the one with the wherewithal to admit that, living in the midst of what appears to be a confident, energetic culture, he among all the rest is lost.” (p. 33)


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