Book Review: The English Reader

The English Reader:  What Every Literate Person Needs To Know, selected and introduced by Michael Ravitch & Diane Ravitch

I have long been fascinated, even if I find much to disagree with, concerning the practice of some writers to demand that others read a certain set of materials [1].  Fortunately, in the case of this book’s materials at least, the materials included for English literature are in general materials that most cultured and literary people will read by their own free will even if they never take a formal course in English literature.  That was at least the case for me and I assume that my own self-education in fine literature is not something that is completely unusual.  That is not to say that being familiar already with a vast majority of the works included here means that I agree with the authors’ perspectives as it is explained in the introductory materials to the book.  Far from it.  Indeed, this book is a rare one where its selected contents are easy enough to praise but where the introductory commentary seeks to define the literate person as one who is rebellious against God’s ways or any kind of larger social obligations and someone who decides what is right and wrong for themselves without any overarching moral code to be held responsible to.

This book contains almost 500 pages of literature, mostly poetry but also including some prose and poetic portions of some drama, over the course of English history organized in a chronological fashion.  The book begins with an introduction and then contains a brave speech by Elizabeth I.  After that comes several sonnets as well as monologues from Shakespeare.  Interspersed around various famous and familiar folk songs are writings from Spenser, Marlowe, Raleigh, Bacon, Donne, Jonson, Hobbes, the KJV, Robert Herrick, Herbert, Browne, Barbara Allen, Milton, and many others.  By and large the editor does a good job at selecting works, including figures like Bunyan, Locke, Newton, Swift, Pope, Wesley, and William Pitt even.  Even when the book deals with 20th century authors the author’s touch is generally sound when it comes to choosing among literature (no Wodehouse, though, sadly), with selections including Chesterton, Forster, Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Eliot, Orwell, Auden, and ending with a couple of stirring World War II speeches from Winston Churchill in 1940, which mark the end of what the author considers to be English literature that every literate person needs to know.  Overall, despite some troubling introductions where the author gives odd praise to different aspects of a writer’s persona and creativity, the selections are a good mix of poetry and prose and include some decent political nonfiction as well, an underrepresented literary genre among the classics.

In reading this book the reader will likely be struck by some of the characteristic problems that involve the issue of creativity.  When we praise creativity, as this book does loudly, it is hard to avoid the tension between praising what mankind does in imitatio dei while simultaneously showing a high degree of resistance to there being an overarching divine order in which we have a part.  The divine order that we rebel against by seeking to decide what is right and wrong for ourselves is the same divine order that gives us dignity and honor as beings created in His image.  This book does not address or realize that tension and so it praises creativity while simultaneously failing to realize that the gift of communication and passion and reason that the author celebrates is something that comes from God.  We enjoy the gifts that come from God even when we resent Him and rebel against Him.  The rain falls upon the just and the unjust, and the same is true with regards to literary ability, if this book’s diverse and frequently contradictory excerpts has anything to say about the subject.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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