The Reading Matrix
Vol. 3, No.1, April 2003

Essays from Contemporary Culture, 4th ed. (Student book)
Katherine Anne Ackley (2001)
Boston: Heinle &Heinle/Thomson Learning
Pp. vii-420
ISBN 0-15-507131-9
Reviewed by Dilys Karen Rees
Universidade Federal de Goiás, Brazil

The textbook, Essays from Contemporary Culture, is a collection of eighty selections which address topics of importance in the modern world, and is aimed at encouraging critical reading and writing at the college level. The selections are organized in nine chapters that move thematically from personal issues to topics that affect American society as a whole. The themes that are presented in the nine chapters of the book are: Transitions; Insights; Self-Perception; Role Models and Heroes; Relationships; Popular Culture; Ethics, Morals, and Values; Prejudice and Discrimination; Violence. Each chapter has seven or eight selections that present the topic from many different angles, and from the point of view of different life experiences. Many of the viewpoints are meant to be controversial so that one selection about a theme can be diametrically opposed to the opinion in the next selection. Six chapters out of the nine end with a short story that deals with the theme around which the chapter is organized.

The selections come from a variety of sources including newspapers, magazines, books and the Internet. They vary in tone, style, and purpose. Two types of table of contents show this variation. Not only is there the traditional table of contents, but there is also a rhetorical table of contents (pp. xv-xviii) which organizes the selections according to their rhetorical function. The topics of this table of contents are: Argument/Persuasion; Cause-Effect Analysis; Commentary/Analysis; Comparison/Contrast; Definition; Description; Division and Classification; Exemplifications/Illustration; Narration; Personal Essay; Process Analysis; Fiction. Thus, it is possible to find the selections organized not only thematically, but rhetorically as well.

Each chapter contains a brief introduction that discusses the theme and the selections. Each selection contains a brief biography of the author and is followed by a "Reader Response" section. This section encourages a personal response to the selection as the questions have been made to apply the reading to the life of the reader. Next, there is a "Questions for Discussion" section that includes four or five discussion topics that encourage the reader to examine the text critically. Finally, at the end of each chapter there is a "Suggestions for Writing" section that includes ten to fifteen topics for student writing. These topics range from writing a narration or a description to explaining, discussing or comparing and contrasting ideas. In other words, the writing topics are also rhetorically varied.

The authors of the selections are, for the most part, Americans, such as Annie Dillard, Deborah Tannen, Bruce Catton, Richard Rodriguez. But there are also authors who are Canadian (Marjorie Simmons, Zoë Landale), English (George Orwell), and French (Albert Camus).

The textbook is meant to be used in a mono-lingual college setting in the USA. As well, the themes around which the chapters are organized are those that interest contemporary American culture in particular. For example, Chapter 4 "Role Models and Heroes" deals with the kinds of people who inspire others. This type of concern is eminently American. Other cultures deal differently with the process of emulation. In addition, the types of people to be emulated vary from culture to culture. However, in spite of the fact that the textbook is meant to be used in a general English class setting, it would be an excellent tool for background readings in American culture courses or contemporary American literature courses in an EFL setting. As the selections are varied and written from different viewpoints, the American culture presented in the textbook is not monolithic, nor one-voiced. Rather, the book has a dialogic approach which serves to show the complexities of modern American culture. This type of organization makes for interesting provocative reading.

It is apparent on examining this textbook that the author has been very successful at choosing contemporary voices from within American culture, and at organizing them in well thought out themes. The exercises that accompany each selection are thought provoking, and do help promote critical reading and writing. In other words, the book fulfills what the author has proposed which is to provide readings from contemporary American culture, and promote critical thinking.

















Dilys Karen Rees teaches language and literature of the English language at Universidade Federal de Goiás, in Goiânia, Brazil. She is working on her doctoral studies in "Letras: Estudos Lingüísticos" at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais. Her research interests are ethnography in the classroom; culture teaching and learning; reading comprehension.