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  • In Defense of Reading. Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century by Daniel R. Schwarz
  • Leonardo F. Lisi (bio)
Daniel R. Schwarz. In Defense of Reading. Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century. Chichester, U.K. and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. 198p. ISBN: 978–1-4051–3099–8.

Defenses of literature would seem to be as old as literature itself, but they may well be particularly welcome at a time of increased economic insecurity. As was pointed out in a New York Times article from February 25, 2009, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth,” job listings in English, literature and foreign languages in 2008–2009 dropped by twenty-one percent, the highest decline in thirty-four years, while the number of college degrees in the humanities is half of that during the 1960s, a mere eight percent (about 110,000 students). While Daniel R. Schwarz in his study does not define a particular danger or enemy from which reading needs protection, his recent contribution to the question of the importance of literature will accordingly be of interest. Schwarz is likely familiar to readers of Conradiana through earlier works like Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly to Under Western Eyes (1980), Conrad: The Later Fiction (1982) and Rereading Conrad (2001), and in the first two chapters of this latest work he also repeatedly draws on Conrad for his argument.

In Defense of Reading is not so much a unified treatise as a collection of six distinct essays, which can easily be read separately. Underlying all is what Schwarz calls his “Humanistic credo,” the claim that “Literature is by humans, for humans, and about humans” (x, et passim). To Schwarz this means that “Human behavior,” what people “fear, desire, doubt, need,” “should be the major concern of analysis” (17). Methodologically, in the sections dealing with literature, Schwarz to this purpose places himself somewhere between traditional close reading and the more recent emphasis on cultural studies. On the one hand he insists that no text is self-enclosed and that, “When reading as well as teaching a text, we need to situate it in the political and historical context” (39). Reading in this view serves a crucial social function since it “makes us better citizens” (12) by helping readers think critically and alerting them to [End Page 85] specific historical conflicts and conditions. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness should in this way be seen as “a visionary text that awakened the world to King Leopold II’s exploitation of the Congo and, by implication, colonial imperialism” (8). On the other hand, Schwarz likewise emphasizes that “The value of a work of art is far more than as a cultural product, dependent on race, class, gender, ethnicity, and geography” (75). Pointing to Conrad’s Secret Agent, he emphasizes that the examination of historical context for its own sake is insufficient since what matters is “understanding how Conrad imaginatively transmuted factual material” (30). Humanistic criticism in Schwarz’ version retains a place for questions of form and the aesthetic.

From this general perspective Chapter One, “The Odyssean Reader or the Odyssey of Reading,” describes the experience of reading as a kind of travel: “We read because we are curious and wish to learn other ways of organizing life not only in our own culture but also in others. (. . .) When reading, we extend our horizons; we come to understand what it is like to be of a different gender, race, and class, to have a different psyche” (3). Such voyages, according to Schwarz, proceed along five stages: 1) “Immersion in the process of reading and the discovery of imagined worlds,” 2) “Quest for understanding,” 3) “Self-conscious reflection,” 4) “Critical analysis,” and 5) “Cognition in terms of what we know” (24–26). Within this general model, however, Schwarz repeatedly emphasizes the uniqueness of each reader’s experience of a text. Reading is always a dialogue between a specific reader and a specific author, and this not only in the sense that we depart from one determined context into another, but also in the sense that our specific historical and social location defines our resistance to or agreement with a given literary world...


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pp. 85-89
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