Dr. Crazy has a long and fine post about Mark Edmundson's "Against Readings" at the Chronicle. Her analysis is more, well, analytical than mine is going to be, so go and read it. She agrees and yet doesn't agree with him, and I can see why.
Edumundson's argument is really seductive in a Culture and Anarchy kind of way: "the best that has been known and thought." When you're reading that book for the first time, especially as a naive reader, you just want to say,"oh, give me the touchstone, Matthew Arnold, and I'll be as good and sensitive a critic as you are--I promise." And certainly we've all read our fair share of the kind of mechanical-application-of-theory-to-texts-criticism he's critiquing, as in "here are five things that Judith Butler says about performing gender, and here are the five points in X text that prove her point."
(And I can't help taking umbrage at this: "Prius-proselytizing." Hey! You talking to me?)
But this seductive vision of reading also demands some absolutes, or maybe binaries, that make me squirm. For example, if you read between the lines, it's clear that there are two kinds of books: the kind that transforms your life, and the kind that doesn't. The first kind is literature, and the second kind isn't.
Here's the problem: while he's right about "befriending the book" in the sense of reading it with an open mind as to its possibilities, and to teaching it in the same way, it's possible to befriend a book that you don't like and that hasn't transformed your life at all, especially if you've chosen to teach it for some reason.
For example, haven't you ever worked up enthusiasm to teach a book that personally left you cold? Heck, I've befriended some texts I didn't care for to the point of going steady with them, but what made that unholy partnership possible was my understanding of how well they performed some particular literary or cultural task, an understanding made possible by understanding some theoretical frameworks, even the New Criticism that's at the heart of his "no criticism" idea. I think what he's saying is that the book that left you cold--say, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent*--but that you could understand conceptually was great might transform a student's life.
I always feel a little dishonest in presenting the books in this way, though, and if I'm going to make Blakean ecstasy and the power to change lives criteria for course books, that creates a problem. How can we know which books will change lives until we teach them? And since as far as I know there isn't a Norton Anthology of Changing Lives and Creating Ecstasy in the Reader, the judgment is still going to rest with us as teachers to balance what we like, what we know students like, and what gets across the concepts that we hope will catch fire with students.
*I know it's supposed to be great, but years ago it just plain left me cold. Are there any books that you feel this way about?