National Lutheran News

Books can be game-changers

Wartburg College guest speaker celebrates power of reading

A book can be a dangerous thing. It can re-arrange your universe. So go ahead. Flirt with danger.

That was the essence of the message shared by Dr. Mark Edmundson with his Wartburg College convocation audience on March 22. The University of Virginia English professor was this year’s keynote speaker at the ELCA school’s Michaelson, Briner & Kildahl Literary Symposium.

According to Edmundson, if the tome you read is the right book, it can set off a reaction in your consciousness that leaves you in a completely different place. “Literary transformation,” he maintained, has re-shaped the lives of the famous and the ordinary alike.

“People have had discovery moments for centuries,” Edmundson told his audience. He cited the case of Walt Whitman, who ended up writing Leaves of Grass, which he called “the greatest creation of poetry in America.” Whitman was inspired by New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson, “who wrote brilliant prose but never created good poetry.” Outmaneuvering his mentor, Whitman succeeded.

Edmundson cited Whitman as an example of someone who, seized by the writing muse, never yielded to discouragement but took Herculean steps to bring his writing in front of people. “No publisher would touch Leaves of Grass, probably in part because the writing was so sensuous.” So Whitman self- published the anthology and peddled it in his Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood, trying to encourage people to buy and read it.

With tongue-in-cheek, Edmundson said, “Leaves of Grass was reviewed three times — each time by Whitman himself. The author was able, thus, to escape the tyranny of bad reviews.”

Scholars and books

Edmundson’s own discovery of the power of reading came, he said, in a most unlikely way. “I was a senior in a suburban high school in Boston. Our school was racially mixed. Athletic jocks were cool. I just wanted to graduate and get on with my life. But I was one course short. So I took a philosophy course guest taught ‘by some geek from Harvard.’

“The professor told me to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” he remembers. “It was the first book I ever bought with my own money. I learned about this angry young Black guy from Boston named Malcolm Little. He fought for justice for his race and ended up in prison. He found that when he voiced opinions in the prison yard, he had nothing with which to back them up. So he started to read. But he lacked sufficient vocabulary to understand anything. So he found a dictionary and essentially memorized it. Then, when he went back to reading books, he found the world opening to him.”

Malcolm X later reflected on his book-reading project during incarceration by saying, “Prison was my Harvard and my Yale,” adding, “I decided the best thing I could do was to become a scholar.”

Edmundson said reading The Autobiography “didn’t turn me into a civil rights advocate, but it convinced me not to hate Black people.” He challenged his audience to take a chance on having their lives changed through reading. In an almost biblical turn of phrase, he said, “Reading can bring you into a new being. It can become a born-again sort of experience.”

Quoting Emerson, Edmundson said, “The right purpose of a book is to inspire. So, find out who you are. If you are discontented with life, open yourself to change.”

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