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PW Starred Review: The Humanities and Public Life

8th December 2013

The Humanities and Public Life

Edited by Peter Brooks, with Hilary Jewett. Fordham Univ., $18 trade paper (172p) ISBN 978-0-8232-5705-8 

This superb collection, edited by Yale University emeritus professor Brooks and lawyer and literary scholar Jewett, asks: What is the relationship between the humanities and public life? Though the book requires sustained attention from even the most invested reader, commitment will be rewarded. The collection moves between the articles presented by each contributor and “responses and discussion” sections that highlight each contributor’s belief in the importance of the humanities. In “Poetry, Injury, and the Ethics of Reading,” Elaine Scarry argues for a concrete relationship between reading literature and becoming better human beings; literature’s “invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty,” Scarry claims, “reduce harm.” Derek Attridge responds to this claim by pointing out that “[e]mpathy, disputation, and beauty are neither peculiar nor essential to literature.” Instead, Attridge suggests, one must be an ethical reader in the first place. The book proposes no trajectory leading to a right answer; rather, it provides a repository of exceptional thinking and “critical judgment.” Jonathan Lear claims for the humanities the role of mental re-invigoration: “We need the poetic words of another to wake us up.” This collection will rouse its readers again and again. 3 b/w illus. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 12/09/2013