The Reading Matrix
Vol. 3, No.1, April 2003
Essays from Contemporary Culture, 4th ed. (Student
Katherine Anne Ackley (2001)
Boston: Heinle &Heinle/Thomson Learning
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