BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Mark Edmundson, why read?
MARK EDMUNDSON, AUTHOR, "WHY READ?": Why read? Well, the compressed answer is, to change your life, to make it a little bit better than it is.
LAMB: When did you first start reading?
EDMUNDSON: I started reading -- I started being read to, actually, by my father. And the first thing I can remember having read to me is "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," which my father read over and over again until I successfully memorized it. And then we were through.
LAMB: You actually memorized it?
EDMUNDSON: Well, it`s not all that long and he knew it by heart, so he thought that I should, too.
LAMB: Can you still do it?
EDMUNDSON: Absolutely not.
LAMB: How does reading change your life?
EDMUNDSON: Well, the way I like to put it is this, that we all get socialized one time around by parents and teachers and schools and priests and ministers, and what have you. And for a lot of people, those values will do just fine. They`re community values. They`re long tested and long tried, and there`s something eminently respectable about them.
But there are other people who, for whatever reason, just don`t fit right into the established values. They find themselves disgruntled, dissatisfied by even with the best-meaning teachers and parents say. Those people go a lot of directions, but one of the best directions they can go is to become obsessed readers. They read and read and read until they start to find people who see the world in a way that`s akin to theirs. And then they feel that they`re home. They`ve got a second set of parents and a second set of teachers, and they can start seeing the world for themselves, a little bit different from the way the community sees it, often.
LAMB: How often do you read something that you totally disagree with?
EDMUNDSON: Oh, all the time. All the time.
LAMB: Give us an example.
EDMUNDSON: I read Updike`s most recent novel, right? I guess what I disagree with in there -- though Updike is a wonderful verbal artist, spectacular technique, wonderful language. But I disagree with the kind of suburban nihilism that underwrites the thing, this sense that, you know, all the characters are pawns, they`re all small, they`re all tiny, and in the end, they`re to be patronized and condescended to, rather than looked at in, you know, somewhat more optimistic and Emersonian terms.
LAMB: What`s a nihilist?
EDMUNDSON: A nihilist is somebody who doesn`t believe in anything, right?
LAMB: Where`s that term come from?
EDMUNDSON: I assume it comes from the Latin word, nihil, which means "nothing," right? So to believe in nothing is a great temptation in the modern world, when there are no assurances out there for people. Nietzsche`s greatest fear was that people who became disabused by religion and by politics and by all the other social norms out there would become nihilists and believe in nothing, and the result would be that they`d lead very small lives in which they`d only think about pleasure and they`d only think about their own advantage.
LAMB: You tell a story in your book about the time you spent in Vermont, at Woodstock.
LAMB: When was it, and what`s the story from the headmaster?
EDMUNDSON: This was in 1977, and we were at a place called the Woodstock Country School in Woodstock, Vermont. And I maintain that it was the last hippie school in America. We had two rules. Rule No. 1 was, Don`t hurt anybody, and rule No. 2 was -- we didn`t really know. And the headmaster of the school was a guy named Robin Leaver. Robin Leaver was tall, with movie-star good looks, great flashing smile, blue eyes. And his career had been entirely in business. If Robin ever read a book all the way to the end, I don`t know what it was.
But he was a terrific educator nonetheless because he strongly believed that every kid who walked into that school had something that he could do that could make him happy and could also make a contribution to society. And we had some pretty hard cases. Their parents -- the parents would walk in sometimes and say, “My kid`s a loser. Good luck with him,” right?
LAMB: Actually a parent would say that about a kid?
EDMUNDSON: Absolutely. We were the court of last resort. And Robin really liked 16 and 17-year-old kids, and he just would keep his peace and take the kid in. And by virtue of, you know, really observing them carefully and seeing what it was they might have to offer, I think we accomplished some good things.
You know, Leaver I don`t think ever read Emerson, but there`s a line in Emerson that he would have loved, "The power that is in you is new in nature," you know? The power that was in each of our individual kids was new in nature. And so he would sit there in meeting, and we`d go through each of the kids. And he`d light on one who was failing everything, and he`d say, “What`s he interested in? What does he like? What does he love.”
I remember him looking at him – “Is there nothing out there that Michael Long really likes to do?” Somebody said, “Well, I saw him following the farmer around. Maybe he likes that.” and Robin said, “OK, no more English, no more history. Put him to work on the farm.” He liked it, and he began to develop a little bit. Next term, he`s back in English and history.
This is part of Leaver`s faith that there`s a little germ of something special in everybody. And what a teacher is supposed to do is look hard and find it and then give it some encouragement.
LAMB: And you caught up with the headmaster 25 years later.
EDMUNDSON: I did. I did. And we had an interesting exchange. We were talking about why the school failed. And I said, “We just had to take too many borderline kids, all right? Some of these people were nearly dangerous.” And he said, “No, no, Mark, they just needed more time. We just didn`t have enough time for them. Some of them needed four and five and seven years, right?” That was very moving to me. And he was still out ahead of me, in a certain sense, in thinking about people`s possibilities. I tried to bring that back into my own teaching, insofar as I could.
LAMB: How old were you when you were at Woodstock?
EDMUNDSON: I was a young teacher. I was 24 to 27 years old.
LAMB: What years?
EDMUNDSON: That was from 1977 to about 1980.
LAMB: What education did you have before you got there?
EDMUNDSON: I had a BA from Bennington College, and whatever degree they should have given at the cab-driving garage that I drove out of in New York City.
LAMB: Did you do a graduate degree somewhere?
EDMUNDSON: Eventually, I did. After I did my three years at Woodstock, I went to Yale University and did a Ph.D. there in English.
LAMB: And then what?
EDMUNDSON: And then, having had -- you know, there`s a great line in Saul Bellow`s "Adventures of Augie March," where he says, “various jobs, the Rosetta stone of my life.” Up until that time, I had about 40 jobs, and since that time, I`ve had one.
LAMB: And that is?
EDMUNDSON: Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
LAMB: So every semester, you teach how many kids, what course?
EDMUNDSON: It varies a great deal, but the heart and soul of my teaching is the romantic poets, English and American. I teach Emerson and Whitman, Emily Dickinson. On the other side of the ledge, I teach Blake and Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley. And for a little bit of opposition, I teach Jane Austin.
LAMB: In your book, you write about Marcel Proust. Now, I must confess, I wouldn`t know much about Marcel Proust if it hadn`t have been for this show and a visit we made a number of years ago -- not too long ago -- to Shelby Foote`s home in Memphis, Tennessee.
I want to show you just a little clip from this program we did with him and ask you why people read Marcel Proust.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - SEPTEMBER 2, 2001)
SHELBY FOOTE, AUTHOR: My mother gave me this four-volume Proust for my 17th birthday, and every time I feel I`ve earned the right to do it, I quit everything and reread Proust. I`ve done it -- in the back of this one, I wrote each time. There`s the ninth reading in 1993. I haven`t felt justified in taking off too much since `93.
LAMB: So you`ve read this book, these -- and it`s what, 3,000 pages?
LAMB: Nine times?
FOOTE: Right. Since `93.
FOOTE: It`s -- two reasons. One is pure enjoyment. Proust is one of the most entrancing writers that ever lived. And the second, he can teach you something. You can always learn -- a writer can learn from Proust. And he can, indeed -- we were talking about Shakespeare. That`s the grand master teacher.
LAMB: Let me stand over here, so folks can see you better. What is it about the written word that`s either attractive to people or it separates it from television?
FOOTE: I really think that the written word is what defines us as superior creatures to all the other creatures on earth. Man is characterized by a number of things. One of them is he`s the only animal that knows he`s going to die some day. And knowing that, he also has an obligation to make the most of whatever time he has. And making the most of it is enormously assisted by reading, by learning about the world.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Mark Edmundson, that was in 2001, in Shelby Foote`s room, where he wrote the Civil War history, part of it. What about Marcel Proust? He`s read it nine times. Why would you do that?
EDMUNDSON: Well, Proust is maybe the greatest stylist in the 20th century. Nobody can write as long a sentence that`s as gorgeous and as revealing, right? His language is beautiful. His metaphors are spectacular. But as Foote says, he knows a whole lot about life. I don`t know that there`s anybody, with the possible exception of Freud, who has thought as hard and unsentimentally about love as Proust has. He`s just unremitting in his analysis of it, especially in the middle three volumes. I think that maybe what Shelby Foote`s getting at when he talks about all the things that Proust has to teach.
LAMB: Have you ever read that "Remembrance of Things Past"?
EDMUNDSON: I have.
LAMB: How many times?
EDMUNDSON: I don`t go through it in the consecutive way that Shelby Foote does. I`ll read a couple of volumes, then a couple more. But I guess you`d have to say that I`ve probably read it twice, but never in a run-through.
LAMB: You also say that you read it to learn about what you really are, what you are -- instead of what Proust says, what you think of yourself?
EDMUNDSON: Yes. Proust has that wonderful line where he talks about how readers will come to understand themselves by seeing the world through his eyes. And some of what he has to say will resonate with them, and that`ll be marvelous, but some of it won`t. And then he says, “But you shouldn`t criticize me if it doesn`t. That`s just the part of the book that`s not about you. It`s just about me.”
LAMB: Who else would you read, if you had time? You have free time, you can read anybody, tell us who that would be.
EDMUNDSON: Well, to me, the two greatest authors in English are Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Shakespeare. And if I had to name one that I prefer for the education of young people, if I had to ask my kids to read all of one rather than all of the other, it would undoubtedly be Ralph Waldo Emerson.
LAMB: Let me show you a little of Robert Richardson...
LAMB: ... who was here some time ago. It was back in 1995. He wrote a book, "Fire on Ice," (sic) about Emerson. And let`s see just a little bit of what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - JULY 12, 1995)
ROBERT RICHARDSON, AUTHOR, "EMERSON: THE MIND ON FIRE": Emerson and Thoreau are the people that I read when I`m feeling bad. They`re people -- I come away from reading them feeling better about myself and the world and my friends and the country. And this ability of Emerson to reach the individual -- to reach me alone, not as part of a party or a group or anything else, but just the individual -- I think is something he still has. I find that when one puts this in front of young people, they respond and they take it up.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Do you agree?
EDMUNDSON: He`s right on the head there, when he`s -- especially when he talks about the individual. Emerson speaks to the individual and tells the individual to treasure his own thoughts, his own perceptions and his own projects, even when the hue and cry is against them. He`s the great writer of the individual pitted against society. And anybody who`s feeling hemmed in by what they take to be a sterile conformity is going to go to Emerson, just as Richardson is describing, and find an ally there immediately. And that is his great wealth, it seems to me.
But the interesting thing about Emerson is that not only is he somebody who`s a wonderful prophet of self-reliance and vision and poetry, he`s also a very prudent, tough Yankee, and he suggests that there are times when you`ve got to be a little bit more vigilant than outrageous. And I like those two sides of Emerson, the fact that he`s as prudential as he is daring.
LAMB: What city were you born?
EDMUNDSON: I was born in Malden, Massachusetts.
LAMB: So you`re right around where he used to live.
EDMUNDSON: Right. But you got to keep in mind, growing up in Malden and Medford as I did, we might as well have been 5,000 miles away from Concord, Massachusetts. These are tough, Irish and Italian working-class towns, and anybody who claimed any kind of conversance with Emerson was an alien immediately.
LAMB: So when were you introduced to Emerson?
EDMUNDSON: I first started reading Emerson, actually, when I entered graduate school. I knew there was some kind of renewed excitement about this guy. Various teachers of mine were talking him up, and I wanted to see what it was they had on the ball. I tried him in college, but I found that Thoreau was far superior. I still love Thoreau, but Emerson to me is No. 1.
LAMB: So what do you go to Thoreau for?
EDMUNDSON: Thoreau is a tough, brutal critic of one central tenet -- one central tendency in American life, and that is consumerism, all right? Simplify, simplify, simplify. There`s no writer who knows more about the perils of consumerism. He talks about how people are out there working hard, laying up -- making themselves sick, laying up money for the day that they fall sick, you know? There`s nobody better than Thoreau for showing you what`s most valuable in life -- time, nature, reading, writing -- and getting you to get some kind of distance on what`s most draining in life -- money, stuff, conspicuous consumption, accumulation, the whole bit. He`s so articulate about it, it`s beyond belief. It`s his central subject, and he`s great on it.
LAMB: So if you wanted to recommend to somebody that`s never read Emerson one book that they might read to be fulfilled on Emerson, what would it be?
EDMUNDSON: I would open up Thoreau`s "Walden," and if I were pressed for time, I would just read the chapter called "Economy."
LAMB: What about Emerson?
EDMUNDSON: In Emerson, I would look at the great essay, "Self-Reliance," and then all of the other essays in the first series.
LAMB: So when you -- how many kids are in your class when you`re teaching?
EDMUNDSON: Ranges from 20 to 40.
LAMB: You say in your book that you sometimes have a rather raucous teaching style. Can you explain that?
EDMUNDSON: Well, I ask them questions that sometimes raise the roof a little bit.
EDMUNDSON: Well, we`re reading "1984," and I say, Hey, if you woke up tomorrow morning and "1984" Big Brother world had taken hold, how would you behave? Would you be like Winston Smith, challenging the system? Would be like Julia, who`s a rebel from the waist town? And one woman raises her hand and says, I`d be like O`Brien. He`s the guy who tortures Winston Smith. He`s the worst person in the book. Why would you? Because like everybody else in this university, I`m trying to succeed and get ahead, and I believe if I woke up in that society, I`d probably try to succeed and get ahead, too.
Well, this caused chaos because some people didn`t want to be associated with O`Brien, but it hit a nerve with other people, who says, yes, she`s more or less right. You know, I could see myself being in complicity with the party and Big Brother.
LAMB: You say you have an attitude about -- a student can say anything they want to in your classroom, even if it`s homophobic or racist or anti-Semitic. Why?
LAMB: Because you want a classroom to be a free speech zone, where all ideas can get examined freely and with detachment, and also with on the part of the teacher, a certain amount of affection. These are people who are in the process of growing. They`re not grown yet. And there`s a kind of a -- it`s a transitional period that they`re in, and all to the good.
Also, I think a lot of the kind of angry conservative movement that rubs me the wrong me, the Rush Limbaugh kind of stuff, came about because people going to college felt, All my professors are liberal, I could never give them my reservations about the liberal line, so that those things festered and got darker and nastier. And then, you know, welcome to talk radio. There they are, expanded to 90 times their size. If they`d been listened to in a tolerant way and disagreed with in an affectionate way, we might have a little bit better civil discourse in the country.
LAMB: So you think there`s something to this liberal professor thing?
EDMUNDSON: Sure. Sure. It goes two ways, though. Professors are liberal, but there`s a lot of flexibility of mind that I see among my colleagues whom I admire a great deal. Students are often hypersensitive, feeling that, you know, If I disagree with the professor, it might harm my grade. Well, that`s a craven reason not to want to disagree with the professor. The professor might hate me, and you know, fail me. That`s a reasonable reason. But I don`t think that`s the case all that much.
Still, one of the things that English departments, in particular, need to do is become receptive to hiring more people who have conservative political views. You can`t have a real dialogue if all you have are liberals, leftists and leftists to the left of leftists.
LAMB: Well, conservative -- I`ve heard the conservative talk show hosts say that students pander to their professors because if they don`t, they will flunk a course. Do you think that`s true in any case?
EDMUNDSON: I think it`s rarely true. When I sit down in meetings -- you know, I can only speak from my own experience. When I sit down in meetings with my colleagues, they`re fair-minded, judicious, thoughtful people, and they are the same as graders, and they`re the same when they talk to their students and they`re the same when they teach. I just think that our lives would be enlivened a lot if conservatives didn`t think that the profession of English teaching at the university level was for all purposes closed to them. It shouldn`t be. That`s a mistake on our part.
LAMB: In your book, you kind of teed off on Jerry Falwell, who teaches in your state and runs Liberty University in Lynchburg, not far away from Charlottesville, where your school is. Why did you pick him out?
EDMUNDSON: I picked him out because to me, he stands for a tendency in American thought that`s moving to simplicity and anger and fear and self-righteousness. And what I`m hoping that literature is going to do is take people toward complexity and thoughtfulness and irony and subtlety.
At the same time, I got to say, when I look into the world now and see how little sure faith there is in religion and government and even media, I understand why people panic and want easy answers. You know, the process of education ought to be reaching out to people in the middle of the country, and other places, who want the easy answers and inviting them into a way of talking and thinking, a way of reading that lets them see the world in more complex ways that ultimately does them good.
LAMB: What do you think the liberal college professor`s reaction would be if they had to send all their kids to schools that had teachers like Rush Limbaugh?
LAMB: And they were taxpayer-supported schools.
EDMUNDSON: Well, the inevitable reaction of liberals who don`t like where their kids are going to school is to send them to private schools immediately. And I know sometimes conservatives feel that they`re being taught by a liberal cabal. It`s not true. It`s not true. It should be more varied than it is, but in terms of enforcing politically correct norms, there`s a smidgen of it, but it`s not the overwhelming aura.
There`s an air -- there`s a tradition of tolerance at universities, and it`s lived -- with qualifications -- quite well for a long time. Ever since I`ve been there, anyway.
LAMB: There`s another subject you talk about a lot, poetry. Nikki Giovanni teaches at Virginia Tech, in the same state you do. And she was here this year talking about poetry. Let`s listen to a little what she had to say about it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - FEBRUARY 2, 2004)
NIKKI GIOVANNI, AUTHOR, "THE COLLECTED POETRY OF NIKKI GIOVANNI: 1968-1998": Poetry is an essence. When we want to compliment anything, when we want to -- there was a Super Bowl last week, you know, Sunday, and we want to compliment -- what`s the name, Brady in New England, right? He`s poetry in motion, right? We drink a wonderful Muzani, you know, a lovely red wine, and it`s poetry in a bottle, right? Or you make a crowned roast of pork and you slice into it, and it`s poetry, right?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Poetry. What is it?
EDMUNDSON: That`s beautifully put. And what she`s emphasizing is the aesthetic or pleasing dimension of poetry. Wonderful thing. From my point of view, there can be more to it than that, and that is that people can read a poet like Walt Whitman and say, That`s exactly what I thought democracy should be. It`s a place where nobody`s ever down on anybody else. It feels really good to live like that. Whitman shows me how. So there`s a dimension to a work that`s not just aesthetic -- it`s beautifully put on her part -- but is also ethical and political. And in my book, I try to bring that side out.
LAMB: You told a story about Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
EDMUNDSON: Yes. Yes, it`s just -- it`s absolutely my favorite story from American literature. Walt Whitman is absolutely nobody. He`s living in Brooklyn, framing three-room houses. He`s done some newspaper work. He`s written a bad temperance novel or two. He keeps a journal. He`s an eccentric. No one has ever heard of him outside of small circles in New York. Nobody`s ever going to hear of him, in all probability.
But then suddenly, in about 1854, you start to see extraordinary things going on in his journal. He`s reading Ralph Waldo Emerson`s work, but he`s also going to the opera and hanging out in Brooklyn and hanging out in New York City and looking around. And at one point, you see him writing in the journal, You know, if I were walking through heaven and Yahweh himself came up to me, there`s no way that I would tip my hat first, unless he tipped his to me. So you can see very strange and rich things are percolating in Whitman`s head.
He finishes the book, and it`s published privately. He brings it around from one store to another, tries to sell it door to door. It`s mainly sold out of phrenology shops, these joints where the living assumption is that by feeling the bumps on somebody`s head, you can tell exactly who they are. So it`s in quack world.
Just on a whim, he sends it off to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who`s got more prestige than all of our Nobel Prize winners put together. Emerson gets the book, and rather than throwing it in the trash bin, he brings it inside and he reads it, and he`s simply blown away by it. It`s magnificent. He loves it.
And it`s especially wonderful because Emerson, his entire life, has wanted to be a poet. He thinks of his essays as a warm-up for his poetry, and his poetry is really not very good. He writes a beautiful essay called "The Poet," in which he describes exactly what an American poet ought to be: somebody who`s expansive, somebody who can take in the lives of Western settlers and the Indians and the hill people up in Vermont and the traders and the blacksmiths and everybody. And Emerson`s poetry is only about him.
But here comes the poetry that`s about everybody. He writes back to Whitman right away, and he says, I`m so grateful for getting "Leaves of Grass." It`s the finest piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet produced. It`s terrific. And then what does Whitman do? In the next edition of "Leaves of Grass," he stamps it on the spine of the book, without Emerson`s permission, and sells more copies.
LAMB: How mad did Emerson get about that?
EDMUNDSON: He was a little bit annoyed, but Emerson was a good sport on some level, and he was also simply thrilled about this volume of poetry. So basically, he let it go.
LAMB: When you read, where do you read?
EDMUNDSON: I tend to read lying down. Usually, I have a beaten-up old couch in my study, and I`ll lie on the bed and read. But sitting up isn`t the game for me. I`m a lie-down reader.
LAMB: And how much in a day do you read?
EDMUNDSON: It really varies, but you know, I try to take home a new book that I`ve never read every weekend and go through that, all kinds of different books -- novels, histories, poems, plays, what have you -- and then probably a couple of others during the week, and lots of magazines and newspapers and stuff.
LAMB: You`ve got a couple of kids.
EDMUNDSON: I do.
LAMB: How old are they?
EDMUNDSON: My older son is 15 and my younger son is 12.
LAMB: And what do they think of reading?
EDMUNDSON: My older boy was obsessed by reading and being read to when he was very young. When he was about 8 years old, we went through the totality of "Don Quixote." Right now, he`s mixed on the subject of reading. He`d rather play football or ride a snowboard or travel or something like that. And my younger boy is not so much a reader as a rock-and-roller. He writes his own songs, and he practices guitar and blasts the roof off the house with his drums.
LAMB: Had your dad not introduced you to reading, do you think you would have been a reader?
EDMUNDSON: I do, only because I had that sense of kind of being out of place, of dislocation that a lot of future obsessed readers get. And I would have quested around until I stumbled into something that helped me see the world in a way that, you know, the people at the church weren`t necessarily seeing it. So I`m thinking so, yes.
LAMB: What did your parents do? Or are they still alive, by the way?
EDMUNDSON: My mother is still alive. She was a mom, a homemaker. My father was somebody who barely graduated from high school and went on to be, through his own intense energy and talent, an engineer at Raytheon Company.
LAMB: And what did he think about what happened to you? And what year did he die?
EDMUNDSON: My father died in 1984, when he was in his mid-50s.
LAMB: So he didn`t see a lot of what you`ve done.
EDMUNDSON: He didn`t, though he did come and visit me one day at Yale, and we took the tour of the campus and we walked around. And it was a very poignant moment because my father was very proud, and he would never admit that he wanted anything that he didn`t have. Everything that we had was great, fine, the best.
But we were walking through the middle of the Yale campus, and he looked up at the buildings, which are sort of wonderful in their Gothic excess, sort of silly, and he said, “Imagine spending your life in a place like this, rather than some plant like Raytheon.” It was a very poignant moment because, clearly, he had the intellectual talent to spend his life in a place like that, and it just never quite came to fruition for him. It was a different time.
LAMB: Frank McCourt, "Angela`s Ashes," was here, and here`s a couple of comments from him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - JULY 11, 1997)
FRANK MCCOURT, AUTHOR, "ANGELA`S ASHES": I stood in front of those classes for over 27 years, talking, exhorting, evoking and learning mostly. I used to say to them in Stuyvesant High School, in September and January, when we`d get these new classes in, I`d say, By the end of this term, there`s one person in this class who will have learned the most, and that`s me most because I want to learn. And I would learn something from -- each time, for instance, we did "Hamlet," each year, if you do it all -- it just -- it keeps -- the poem, the play keeps revealing itself.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: What`s it take to want to learn? And when do you see people kind of clicking in on it?
EDMUNDSON: Well, McCourt`s got his finger on it. You really start to learn when you become a teacher because you`ve got to! The next day, they`re going to be asking you questions about it, and you`ve got to be squared away. It takes the passion of teaching, but it also takes a conviction that I could make my life something different from it is through reading. And then I think what`s also in the back of McCourt`s mind is that, I can use this to make myself into a writer. And I know a friend of mine was in his classes at Stuyvesant, and when "Angela`s Ashes" came out, he said, Loved the book, love McCourt. But of course, he wrote the first draft over and over again as he told these stories to us time and time again. So he was writing then, too.
LAMB: Do you write when you teach? Do you think about that?
EDMUNDSON: Absolutely. Yes. Yes.
LAMB: So what are the kind of things in this little book about "Why Read?" that you learned from your students
EDMUNDSON: I learned a whole new way, for instance, of looking at "Portrait of a Lady," you know? I...
LAMB: Which was?
EDMUNDSON: Which was that...
LAMB: Or which is?
EDMUNDSON: Which is that Henry James has created this marvelous character, Isabel Archer, who`s beautiful and free and young and just arriving in Europe and being courted by one rich old-world potentate after the next, and she`s full of high spirits and American good will and goodness. And reading the book before, I had always had a sense that she was the most wonderful character in literature.
But reading it with my students and going slowly over it, you could see that James really disdained her considerably. And my students loved her, and I loved her, but James quite disdained her. And what we saw together, not only that James disdained her and her shallowness and small-time hubris and what we`d now call narcissism, but that James also somewhat disdained it in us indirectly. And we had to come to terms with that dimension of us that was aligned with Isabel Archer.
And a couple of students -- I say Isabel all the way, but a couple of the students said, James was right. What`s bad about Isabel, all that optimism and all of that American high good cheer, is bad about me, too, and I wouldn`t mind having it purged away by reading this book, in the same way that James purges it out of Isabel by virtue of what happens to her as the book unfolds.
LAMB: What year do you start teaching? I mean, what year in school are they?
EDMUNDSON: I teach every level, from first-year to ending graduate students.
EDMUNDSON: How often do you get -- this is going to sound unfair to the student -- a blank slate, someone who walks in and it`s the first time they`ve ever thought about being serious about reading?
EDMUNDSON: All of the students at the University of Virginia are accomplished students. You know, they`ve done well. They`ve succeeded. They`ve gotten high scores. We take in 250 valedictorians in any given year. But the big division is between people who have a spirited drive to think and talk about their lives and to analyze themselves and to analyze the world around them in political and social terms, and the ones that don`t. And sometimes, the kids who have the most spirited drive to think and to analyze things and to imagine things are not the most intellectually talented. But to me, that`s the big division, the people who are spirited in their response and the people who one would have to describe as rather complacent.
LAMB: How often do you learn that a student has parents that aren`t the slightest bit interested in reading and hadn`t educated them before they got there?
EDMUNDSON: Well, I`m continually, of course, finding parents who say to their sons and daughters, Stay out of the English department. You must go to the comm school. You must be pre-med. You must be pre-this, you must be pre-that. That`s the major tendency. We have middle-class parents who value reading, but frequently, they value worldly success more, to which I can only say to the students, It`s ultimately your own decision, and often people need to know themselves before they know what they`re going to do with their lives. This is an opportunity to know yourself. You might want to take it.
LAMB: Is yours an elective? Or do people have to choose your course?
EDMUNDSON: By and large they`re electives.
LAMB: Paul Johnson, British historian, wrote about the history of the United States, was here in 1998, said something that I think you`ll be interested in.
EDMUNDSON: I look forward.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PAUL JOHNSON, AUTHOR, "A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE": But of course, the book which mattered more than any other in American history was the Bible.
You could say that America is, to some extent, the product of the Bible, because that was the book that the original settlers carried with them. They read it conscientiously.
They went on reading it. Their children and grandchildren read it. They - often in families, it was the custom to go all the way through the Old Testament and the New Testament once a year.
And it was the King James Bible, as we call it, was something that was written into their title deeds and very much into the language.
And it`s often surprising how frequently you come across congressional orators and presidential orators, which carry echoes of the Bible.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: What do you think?
EDMUNDSON: True enough. True enough.
Some distinctions worth making. The Old Testament or the New, you know? The New Testament to me is the great book of hope, and the Old Testament is the great book of power, authority and often, alas, revenge.
And I think America has moved backward and forward between the embrace of the new covenant that the New Testament represents - Emerson`s a great champion of that - and lapsing back into the old rhetoric of sin and damnation.
So, it`s not just that there`s been a book at the center of our culture. There`s been a kind of squabble over that book that`s ongoing.
LAMB: You ever talk about the Bible in your classes?
EDMUNDSON: Sure. Teach it all the time.
LAMB: How often do you find students that know the Bible, and then some that don`t have any idea about the Bible?
EDMUNDSON: Well, the students who know the Bible best often tend to come from a fundamentalist or a resolutely Christian background. But since they`ve showed up for a literature course, they`re open to debating the whole thing. And they can be the greatest pleasure conceivable.
LAMB: You say you`re a long-time agnostic. Explain.
EDMUNDSON: Well, I grew up Roman Catholic, was part of the church until I was 11 or 12 years old, and then came to the conclusion - two things - that, you know, as a young, scientific empiricist.
There was no proof for any of this stuff. And number two, the level of prohibition and thou-shalt-not was more than a 12-year-old self could stand.
So, my friends and I all rebelled simultaneously - the Luthers of Milton, Massachusetts.
LAMB: So, churchgoing today at all?
EDMUNDSON: Absolutely not.
LAMB: What about the family?
EDMUNDSON: No. Not at all.
LAMB: What about the students?
EDMUNDSON: The students are very mixed. And you can never predict, based on sitting down and talking to them, how many will be resolute churchgoers, how many, you know, obligatory churchgoers and how many complete agnostics or atheists. It`s - you don`t know.
LAMB: How important is religion to this country?
EDMUNDSON: It`s a complex question. Religion is absolutely central on one level. Ninety percent of Americans believe that God knows and loves them personally. And there`s a good deal of at least expressed religious conviction.
But we make money with such a grim fervor five days of the week, then walk out to see our pagan spectacle, football, the next day, and then go to church the next. It`s a funny disparity there. It`s not unresolvable, but it`s not easy to resolve.
LAMB: Do you ever get into a discussion in the classroom and arguments about this?
EDMUNDSON: All the time.
LAMB: How do you do it?
EDMUNDSON: All the time. Well, you walk in there with a book like Freud`s "Future of an Illusion," in which Freud is the crankiest and least sympathetic atheist who ever lived, says simply, what`s religion? Religion is the longing for the father, right.
We all want to go back to the time when dad was omnipotent and gave us complete protection and complete love. And so, we create religions that restore that early state of things.
Well, this causes a near riot, sometimes.
LAMB: What was your own relationship with your dad?
EDMUNDSON: My father was a remote, difficult, highly intelligent person. And the things I gained, got from him, the sense of independence and determination. I greatly treasured the energy that he had and conveyed to me.
I hope that I`m a little bit less stubborn and unreachable by argument than he is, and maybe a little softer.
LAMB: Do you change anything about the way you relate to your own boys, because of your own experience?
EDMUNDSON: Sure. It`s something of a generational thing. Of course, there`s a shift in childrearing in general.
No corporal punishment. A lot more talk than punishment at all. Attempt to be not only an authority figure but an ally - couldn`t quite say a friend, that`s not exactly right - to a child.
And also, a sense, as quiet as it may be, that comes in many ways from the romantics, that there`s a whole lot to learn from children if you`ll step back and watch.
LAMB: What have you learned recently from your kids?
EDMUNDSON: Well, my son Willie is the best spontaneous blues improviser that I know. He`s a wonderful artist on the guitar. And that`s partly because he simply lets it fly.
When I try to write different kinds of new things, new kinds of essays - I just did a draft for a play - it`s his improvisational power that`s urging me on just a little bit.
LAMB: Where do you write in your life? In your home, or at your office, or ...
EDMUNDSON: I have a marvelous little building out behind my house. And it`s got a word processor and a couch and books falling all over the place. I have ideal circumstances.
LAMB: How long have you had that, by the way?
EDMUNDSON: Ever since I moved to - well, three years after I moved to Virginia, we moved out into the country in Batesville. So, 17 years.
LAMB: This book, "Why Read?" is 146 pages long. It`s relatively small. How long did it take you to write this?
EDMUNDSON: Well, you know, I love the answer that R.P. Blackmur gave when a student showed up at his door and showed him a poem. And Blackmur - showed him three poems -and Blackmur said, I like this one the best.
And the student said, I wrote that in five minutes. And Blackmur said, how old are you, son? I`m 18.
Blackmur said, it took you 18 years to write that.
It took me 51 years to write that, you know?
LAMB: You write about David Denby in your book. But you write about him as a movie critic for "The New Yorker."
LAMB: We had him here when he had written a book, after he spent a year going back to Columbia to study great books.
EDMUNDSON: Oh, "Great Books," yes.
LAMB: Here`s David Denby.
EDMUNDSON: Wonderful book.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID DENBY, AUTHOR, "GREAT BOOKS": Anyway, Hegel also sounded better aloud. And I began to understand him, at last, by reading it - declaiming against the late night traffic on West End Avenue.
And that was a lot of fun. It was like climbing a mountain and falling back, and falling back, and then climbing up and falling back. It was difficult, but I felt every muscle straining.
And when I finally got to the point where I thought I understood a good bit of the "Introduction ... on the Philosophy of History," I was very, very happy. That was one of my high points.
I mean, I don`t mean to make this sound like some endurance test this whole year. It was great. I was thrilled. I was - I felt like I was pressing up against the frame of my life every day.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: What do you think?
EDMUNDSON: It`s moving. It was a great premise for a book. I`m going to go back to school, and I`m going to do it right this time. And I`m going to integrate it into a richer, more complex, adult life.
As to reading Hegel, Hegel`s not my favorite philosopher, but I`m glad David labored through to understand it.
LAMB: How do - and you write a lot about philosophers in here, including Freud, who you say you`ve spent your life with.
LAMB: Why, by the way?
EDMUNDSON: Freud is somebody who can tell you more about yourself than anybody else when you`re feeling down and low and reduced, right.
Freud is great on depression, great on mourning, great on a love that`s going sour. His view of human beings when they`re at their worst is astounding.
At the same time, somebody who desperately needs a philosophy of happiness to complement the philosophy of grief, that is pervasive in his work.
These are great thinkers. Just a stoical, very tough-minded thinker. Far too tough-minded for our current addiction to cheerfulness.
LAMB: Did you get a Ph.D. at Yale?
EDMUNDSON: I did.
LAMB: Did you write about Freud?
EDMUNDSON: I did. I wrote a dissertation that talked about Freud in the context of the romantic poets. And I tried to offer a romantic reading, a poet`s reading, of Freud, tried to read him as a poet rather than the Freudian readings that were so fashionable at the time.
LAMB: Who is the hardest philosopher, that you`ve studied in your life, to understand?
EDMUNDSON: Heidegger is the hardest. Not because what he`s saying per se is so difficult, but because the experience that he wants to extend to you is the experience of getting behind Plato and, what`s broadly speaking, the rationalization of the world. He wants you to feel the mystery of being.
And so, it involves not only an intellectual nimbleness, but an emotional openness that`s very hard to come by.
LAMB: Simon Winchester wrote a book, "The Professor and the Madman," about the Oxford English Dictionary.
LAMB: He talks about the English language. Let`s listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SIMON WINCHESTER, AUTHOR, "THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN": English is a living language. Unlike the French, who said - the Academie Francaise, who have these, the 40 immortals, who said - this is the French language. And we`re not going to have words like "le sandwich" and "le weekend" polluting our language. This is what - it`s fixed by us.
The English said, no. English is not fixed. It`s constantly changing, constantly evolving. But the complexity of that is that we have to keep expanding our dictionaries.
So, the OED is now 20 volumes, with three additional volumes produced in the last five years. Now, sensibly, it`s going online on CD ROM. And it`s showing, thanks to technology, its living nature, or the living nature of the language.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Are we lucky to be living in an English-speaking country, versus a lot of the other languages you might have studied?
EDMUNDSON: Well, of course, but anybody will tell you that their language is the best and most wonderful. I mean, English gives you - he`s exactly right - has that huge, huge, expanding power. It`s just never going to stop getting bigger and bigger.
And it`s wonderful that people can coin words and have them actually show up in dictionaries two or three years later. He`s right. It`s not going to happen in France.
One of my favorite literary critics, Richard Poirier, he`s a very elegant and precise stylist. Nonetheless, I`ll now and then see a word in him and, ha! That`s not in the dictionary. So even critics can do it as brilliantly.
LAMB: Have you ever studied another language?
EDMUNDSON: I have. I have. Studied French and Latin.
LAMB: I`ve always wanted to ask - never asked anybody this. I`ve always wondered why writers throw the little, sometimes Latin phrases, but often the French phrases into books.
And you`re reading along, and if you`re not a French speaker, you say, I`ve just been kind of gamed here. I mean, this guy is ...
LAMB: ... showing me how smart he is.
Why do people do that?
EDMUNDSON: Sometimes to game the reader and show how smart they are.
Other times, because, though there ought to be an English equivalent, there isn`t. The one that pops to mind is "schadenfreude" - the German word that means, pleasure in the mishap coming to a friend. We don`t have an English word that hits exactly that. And I understand why people import it.
And pretty soon, it will - it`ll probably just turn up as an English word.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite, or favorite words that you like to use when you write?
EDMUNDSON: When one of my colleagues was reading through a book of mine, he noticed that I had a tendency toward words like "supreme" and "noble" and "marvelous" and "splendid."
So, the exclamatory pat on the back is, I guess, part of my stock in trade.
LAMB: Do you have pet peeves about writing that you avoid? Phrases, you know, dangling particles. I don`t know. You know what I`m getting at?
EDMUNDSON: I punctuate a lot. I try to guide the reader as much as I can.
I try to be as absolutely clear as possible, and yet, I try not to be somebody who sacrifices complexity at all.
So, I was talking to a group of students at the University of Massachusetts this weekend, and they knew I was from Medford. Many of them were from similar towns.
And they said, hey. You`re from Medford. There are 50 words in here that we don`t know. And I said, well, you can look at that as an affront, or you can look at it as a doorway into new knowledge.
The great line of a 20th century American literary critic, he says that new words and new metaphors increase the stock of available reality. You know? There`s suddenly something you perceive as out there that you didn`t perceive before.
Well, you can take it that way, or you can become a downcast. No, I don`t know that word. That`s a problem.
LAMB: Gertrude Himmelfarb has written a lot about the Victorian period. She`s got this to say about the language.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB, AUTHOR, "THE DE-MORALIZATION OF SOCIETY": ... a good chunk of my life reading and thinking about the Victorians. I find them an enormously stimulating - it`s an enormously stimulating period. And these were very, very thoughtful men.
Mind you, while I was doing this, I was doing other things, as well. When I taught, for example, I taught not only English intellectual history, but I also taught about the Continental traditions, and the Germans and the French - Kant, Hegel, Marx, and so on.
And it was very interesting to see my Victorians in contrast to the Continental thinkers. The Continental thinkers very often much more profound, more systematic, more ambitious as philosophers than the English. But lacking at a kind of humane quality that I always found in the English.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Your reaction.
EDMUNDSON: Good stuff. I mean, if it`s a matter of reading Dickens, the most humane, comic and buoyant writer in English, maybe - next to Shakespeare - on the one hand, and reading one of the great mid-19th century German philosophers, even, you know. And I adored Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Maybe the palm goes to Dickens.
But I like what Gertrude Himmelfarb is saying about making the Victorian period available to people as a source of other values - and I think she does this in her work - of values that they may want to maintain, sometimes in contrast to contemporary values.
LAMB: You mentioned Schopenhauer, and you also write about him.
EDMUNDSON: I do a little bit.
EDMUNDSON: Schopenhauer is a very daring, early romantic philosopher.
He`s extremely pessimistic, very tough-minded and is somebody who ends up in his despair of human folly, turning in a direction that I`ve been exploring more and more. And that`s Buddhist thought.
LAMB: Why Buddhist?
EDMUNDSON: The Buddhist philosophy of the will, that the only way to happiness is to curtail and subdue as many desires as possible, is absolutely fascinating to me.
Ultimately, I think it`s a failure. Human beings can`t do it, and suffer all kinds of sorrows when they try to go too far in terms of denying desire.
But there`s something very profound about it, nonetheless. You know, still, you know, Jacques Lacan says, talking about the Buddhist or Buddhist renunciation of desire. The patient desires to have no desires.
And when somebody desires to have no desires, you`ve got a serious case of repression on your hands.
LAMB: Are you becoming a Buddhist?
EDMUNDSON: I want to be influenced by the part of Buddhism that emphasizes kindness, nonviolence, benevolence, respect for life.
And yet, because some of the things that I`m inclined to say are controversial, I have to be aware that, though I affirm kindness and gentleness, nonetheless, there`s going to be some inevitable friction in what I do. And I don`t want to back off from that.
So, the poet that I like the most, next to Emerson, is probably William Blake. And he`s a tough, prophetic, left-wing, revolutionary poet.
If you could combine Blake`s toughness and eagerness to effect change with a sense of Buddhist detachment and kindness, you`d really be going somewhere. But that`s tough to do.
LAMB: Do you vote, by the way?
LAMB: Did you always vote?
LAMB: What do you find in your classrooms from your students about being involved today in politics?
EDMUNDSON: A lot of skepticism. Virtually blanket skepticism. Some vote, some don`t.
But as intelligent as they are, and as engaged in many aspects of life as they are, the great majority of my students think that politics is a sham, that one candidate is the same as another, and that voting is neither here nor there.
Now, this is a highly unscientific survey on my part. But it`s something that is, for many of my, even my brightest students - particularly the brightest students - it almost feels like a natural disposition, it`s so potent.
LAMB: Cornel West. Here`s what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CORNEL WEST, AUTHOR, "RACE MATTERS": Yes. The advantage of reading is that there is a connection between cultivating the art of living and fighting courageously for the expansion of democracy.
See, the art of living is learning how to die. And what I mean by that is, is that if you`re really going to live life intensely, then something in you every day ought to die - some bad habit, some prejudice, some faulty presupposition - so that you`re continually involved in a struggle to better yourself, become more mature, more compassionate, more courageous.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Democracy. He talked about it there.
LAMB: You write about democracy. I`m going to read a little bit in a moment.
LAMB: Do people that you know believe in democracy, in and around these colleges?
EDMUNDSON: Everybody believes in democracy in a knee-jerk sort of way.
But it`s few people - and I think Cornel West is one of them, it`s one of the reasons I admire him - who see democracy as a struggle, you know, who understand that up until just a couple of hundred years ago, the belief was pretty much pervasive that people were no damn good, and had to be ruled from the top, right, and that the idea of people ruling themselves is a great experiment. We`re trying it out here. And it may fail.
You know, if you look back in the direction of other people who have been democratic - the Athenians, the Iroquois, the Vikings - they have their good qualities, but frequently they succumb to an amazing hunger for violence.
So, you know, it`s an open-ended thing.
LAMB: Here`s what you write.
"These professors, whatever they may say, are fundamentally afraid of living in a democracy, where people think for themselves rather than letting experts do their thinking for them. This fear is a scandal at the center of the current-day academy. Though many professors claim to be on the left, the fact is that they do not trust, or sometimes, even much like, everyday, relatively unschooled people. In fact, they tend to despise the people on whose behalf they claim to be working."
How extensive is that?
EDMUNDSON: I may be hitting higher rhetorical heights than I would with those sentiments today. But nonetheless, I think that the real problem for people left and liberal, like myself, is a strong mistrust of everyday people.
They love Bush. They love NASCAR. They love football. They`re beyond help.
So, there`s a certain amount of contempt and frustration, and I understand those things, particularly in light of current politics.
And there`s a throwing up of the hands. And there`s a turning inward, a desire to talk only to ourselves and to our most gifted students.
Whereas, a turning outward in the direction of society, even though we may occasionally be laughed at, our authority may be undermined, we may not get the kind of response that we`re looking for.
I think that`s a worthwhile thing, and I think that`s part of the democratic project.
You know, democracy is, as they said in the Port Huron Statement, getting more and more people to take an active role in making the decisions that matter about the shaping of their lives.
LAMB: Who wrote the Port Huron Statement?
EDMUNDSON: The various members of SDS who got together sometime ...
LAMB: Students for a Democratic Society.
EDMUNDSON: ... right, right ...
LAMB: Years ago.
EDMUNDSON: ... years ago, right, to fundamentally found the movement.
It`s a wonderful piece of populist, John Dewey-type, democratic writing.
And I think that we professors have often turned away from that, because of the frustrations that are inevitable. I mean, when one hears the worst kind of right-wing rhetoric - America is good, strong, just, true. The rest of the world is inadequate, insofar as they don`t follow our lead or admire all of our habits and behaviors.
This is real, and it`s really out there. And the idea of talking about Emerson or Shakespeare, into a context that`s been shaped by that kind of mean rhetoric, is very daunting.
And I understand why my colleagues sometimes throw up their hands. But nonetheless, I think it still has to be done.
LAMB: So, how do you deal with it on a day-to-day basis. Do you have to talk yourself into allowing the other side to be heard?
EDMUNDSON: I have to talk myself into, sometimes, writing for a general audience, knowing that I`m going to get what are at least going to appear to me to be uncomprehending kinds of reviews.
I have to talk myself into, sometimes, you know, giving a lecture that`s going to be challenging to some of the people in the room, who may say, ah. This is just snobbishness going on here. And, you know, kind of take the hit from that and go on.
But mostly, I want to - I don`t want to affirm the negative. I`m incredibly grateful for the time that I`ve gotten to spend in the university. I`ve had a wonderful life there, and I`m grateful to the entire system for what it`s given me and what it`s done. And mostly, it`s a pleasure, right.
And when you can think, as I can think, they’re making some small contribution to the sort of thing that West is talking about, you know, enhancing people`s capacity to grow and learn and develop, then that`s a great privilege and a great gift. And I`m grateful for it.
LAMB: Jill Ker Conway used to be the president of Smith College.
LAMB: And she wrote about memoir, and here`s what she had to say in 1998.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JILL KER CONWAY, AUTHOR, "WHEN MEMORY SPEAKS": And talking to a young woman, who`s just finishing college and thinking about her life ahead, there are really very few memoirs about a woman`s education that will help her think about it.
And also, very few that deal with how a young adult woman sets about planning her life.
And so, I wanted to write a story that would be a useful kind of roadmap, that somebody going through that process of graduating from college and thinking about the future.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: What do you think of that kind of writing, memoir?
EDMUNDSON: Well, I`ve written one. I wrote one called "Teacher," and it was an homage to a teacher that I really loved, Doug Meyers, whom I call Frank Lears in the book, who turned up in Medford High School, my working class high school, and effected a sort of miracle for us.
So, I think that kind of thing, that potentially inspiring memoir is a great genre, and I`m pleased to have contributed a little fragment to it.
I do hope, somewhat in distinction to what Conway says, that there will be women who are able to be inspired by men`s memoirs, and men inspired by women`s, so that we can learn from each other.
It need not be only women reading - I`m not necessarily saying that that`s what she`s suggesting - but we can, the genders can learn from each other in this regard.
LAMB: Go back to the title of your book, "Why Read?", if again, someone is watching and they`ve not been a big reader, what would you tell them about starting? How should they start?
EDMUNDSON: I think that the best way to start is with two thoughts in mind. Dr. Johnson says about boys reading, he says, just let them read anything they want. They`ll get good books later on.
So, I would encourage people to read what it is they like and what they`re drawn to, with the idea that someday they`re going to graduate to Shakespeare or Emerson or Emily Dickenson.
And I`d encourage them to be compiling a list of writers whose names or details about them have always intrigued. And though what they may be reading now isn`t the strong stuff - they`re not in the Olympics of reading and writing - nonetheless, they`re looking to go in that direction, because it can give you a life more than the easy stuff can. But you`ve got to start somewhere.
LAMB: If you had your time, would you prefer fiction over non-fiction? Or which one would you prefer?
EDMUNDSON: I myself, as a professor of English, always goes for the fiction and poetry, because it`s more intimate and personal and immediate, and it helps people to do more of the things that I think is most important for their development. Helps them to learn how to talk to themselves.
Those are very deep and inward voices that you get in a good novel, from the narrator, and in a good poem. And once you can start to reproduce those voices in your own spirit, you`ve taken a really good step forward in the kind of growth that West is talking about.
LAMB: Christopher Hitchens. Here`s 30 seconds on radical writing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, AUTHOR, "FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT": I think of the radical writers, though, there are some outstanding cases.
This - well, I mentioned Gore Vidal already, who I think is one of the best writers of this or any other time, and who is the person I`ve most, I guess, tried to model myself on, in that he`s so much of a polymath. I mean, he has such a range and tries to synthesize literature and politics very brilliantly.
So, I openly confess to a sort of - it`d be wrong to say penis envy for Gore Vidal, wouldn`t it, but you know what I mean.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Does his kind of writing work?
EDMUNDSON: It does. Hitchens is a terrific writer. And Vidal is, as well.
I often find them to be, for all their riches, writers who are writing so much into the present and the immediate moment, who are so topical, that the thought of reading them twice is a little bit daunting.
LAMB: Here`s an older book spoken about by Milton Friedman, on the other side.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MILTON FRIEDMAN, AUTHOR AND ECONOMIST: It`s a book well worth reading by anybody, because it`s a very subtle analysis of why, how it is that well-meaning people who intend only to improve the lot of their fellows, tend to favor courses of action which have exactly the opposite effect.
I think in my, from my point of view, the most interesting chapter in that book is one labeled, “Why the Worst Rise to the Top”.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: He`s talking about "Road to Serfdom" - Hayek - a bible for people on the conservative political side.
EDMUNDSON: I`m glad to know about it. Until this moment, I`ve heard nothing about it. But I will write it down and give it a look.
LAMB: So, you`ve never read "Road to Serfdom."
EDMUNDSON: Never. Nor heard of it, until this moment.
LAMB: Mark Edmundson, we`re out of time. Thank you for joining us.
Here`s what the book looks like. "Why Read?" University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson, thank you very much for joining us.
EDMUNDSON: Thank you.
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