My Review of The Humanities and Public Life

“What leverage does reading of the attentive sort practiced 18637293in the humanities give one on life? Does such reading represent or produce an ethics? Should such an ethics of reading inhabit professional training and the public sphere as well?”

Peter Brooks in the Introduction



With such questions in his mind as a result of reading the “Torture Memos” released a dozen years ago by the US Department of Justice, Peter Brooks, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University and Andrew W. Mellon Scholar in the department of Comparative Literature and the Center for Human Values at Princeton University, and editor of the book along with Hillary Jewitt, brought together a diverse group of scholars from across the humanities, law, and the social sciences to determine if there is “an ethics of reading” which is not a “product but a process and a practice. The practice of reading itself, pursued with care and attention to language, its contexts, implications, uncertainities, can itself be an ethical act.”

The result is an interesting and wide ranging discussion of what reading does – in the various fields represented, in the university setting, in the larger culture – as well as the challenge to reading and humanities from those who espouse “deliverables” as part of the measured value of a college education (which was highly questioned by the participants). But as to the point, which I think was the point of the gathering, “Can reading make a person a more humane person and create more humane responses to human life?” (wording mine) there was both agreement and disagreement.

At several points some of the published work and comments found agreement with this reader such as Brooks’ comment in his introduction:

“The ability to read critically the messages that society, poltics, and culture bombard us with is, more than ever, needed training in a society in which the maniuplations of minds and hearts is increasingly what running the world is all about.”

But at other times some of them seem to this reviewer to go far afield of the stated goal of the seminar.

Being a graduate of a college in which the liberal arts is the core educational philosophy and being an ungraduate English major (with many additional hours in history and relgion) I was interested in what was to be said about the valued practice of reading. While I learned some new and valued perspectives on the ethics of reading, for example in Patricia J. Williams’ essay about the value of captions to change one’s interpretation of a picture, I was somewhat disappointed at times. However, this book would be a great book for an upperclass undergrad and graduate seminar or for an integrated seminar across fields.

But I am glad that I read the book as it reminded me of the value of the humanities and that reading and other valued habits and practices in the field of humanities cannot be measured in metrics and do have a vital place and impact on society. I do think good reading can and must foster good citizenship and particiption in one’s communities.

I rate this book a ‘good’ read.

Note: I requested a galley copy of this book via Net Galley and I gratefully acknowledge the kind response of the publisher, Fordham Press in granting me a copy in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

Any ads which appear below are not endorsed by me.


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