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Reviews The Company We Keep: An Ethics ofFiction, by Wayne C. Booth; xi & 557 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, $29.95. Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep is not an angry book, it is important to note, since so much ethical criticism boils over with moral outrage. Rather, Booth wants to make friends. These friends arebooks and their implied authors. The three partsofCompany work to redefine ethical criticism in terms of the companionship experienced in reading and its effects on our character. In part one, Booth rejects the disapproving variety of ethical criticism for one that tries to describe the encounter between the storyteller's ethos and that of the reader. Booth dissolves the distinction between the aesthetic and the ethical, and argues that we live our lives in surrender to stories and that we discover their moral power only in this surrender. Fiction acts as a trial-run for life's choices. Thus, it is not what we read but how we read that counts, and we must accept a plurality of goods in reading. In part two, Booth stresses thatwe nevertheless need a method for discriminating the kinds of company offered by books. He proposes seven cardinal virtues to be used to evaluate the "patterns ofdesire" offered to readers by their would-be paper friends. These virtues are to orient our selection of friends, but Booth's explicit message is that we must remain open to a book's offer of friendship whether it is moral or not. Finally, in part three, Booth turns direcdy to the problem of moral censure. His test cases are the sexism of Rabelais and of Austen's Emma, the erotic didacticism of Lawrence, and the racism of Huck Finn. Except for Rabelais, Booth finds ways of reading the authors that save them for ethical criticism. Booth's emphasis throughout is on how to read and not on what to read. "Learn to read well" is the book's refrain. This reveals a literary critic's perspective , for the profession lives by teaching people how to read properly. One can no more blame Booth for this than a frog for guarding its lily pad. But the emphasis does reveal one bias that Booth does not confess, and he does 375 376Philosophy and Literature straightforwardly and refreshingly admit many. For a piece ofethical criticism, Company is obsessed with aesthetic merit. Booth wants to do away with the distinction between the ethical and the aesthetic, to make them a two-way street, but he does not cruise both sides of the boulevard. The only works that he dismisses as moral failures are difficult to handle aesthetically: Benchley's/aa«, Rabelais, and Penthouse magazine. Rarely if ever does he praise an ethically superior work that fails aesthetically. In short, learning how to read properly for Booth means learning how to uncover sufficient aesthetic and linguistic complications to redeem the potentially immoral content of a work. The book as aesthetic object, sometimes as fetish, remains an obstacle imposed between readers and fictional characters; and in this respect, Company recalls, no doubt more than Booth would like, the fascination with "reading" found in deconstruction and not what we might call ordinary, everyday reading, the kind with which we most often exercise our character. I do not want, however, to push this point too far. Even though Booth himself seems not to favor moral evaluation, I must say that this book is a good friend, and its implied author displays the best of virtues (and here I mean "virtues" not "vices"; Booth says there can be evil virtues!). He is well-intentioned, mature injudgment, youthful in enthusiasm, and erudite. His desire to keep company with his reader is genuine, and his offer of friendship is sincere. Booth accepts everyone, seemingly like Austen's Jane Bennet, without pride or prejudice. Indeed, I am tempted to conclude my ethical criticism of Company with Booth's evaluation of Lawrence: "What I discovered, on a second and third reading, was a much fairer and livelier distribution of human sympathy for disparate views than I had ever expected any single human being to display." University of MichiganTobin Siebers Contingencies ofValue: Alternative Perspectivesfor...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 375-376
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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