An Uncommonly Effective Textbook for Introducing Multicultural Literature

Textbook Review

I’ve used Abdul Jabbar’s Reading and Writing with Multicultural Literature ever since the first edition in 2011, and I’ve been please with excellent results in the classroom.  The fourth edition, recently published, is more impressive than ever.  This edition fully lives up to its newly added subtitle, In Search of Reconciliation and Peace, emphasizing its relevance to students living in this vexed world of today.  There is a new chapter on the personal essay as a form of literature, completing the book’s coverage of all the important literary genres and adding substantially to the book’s multicultural wealth.  In addition, film as literature gets its own well-deserved chapter, given loving attention by the author, who is as astute on film as he is on works in the written word.

In this edition there are thirty-three new poems, ten new short stories, four new essays, and a new play; these works are drawn from South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North and Latin America.  This book’s usefulness to professors of literature and writing cannot be overemphasized.  Relying on his experience teaching writing and literature for nearly half a century, Dr. Jabbar presents a surprisingly pain-free process for mastering the skills of interpretation, critical thinking, reasoning, analysis, and effective writing.  His book meets those challenges in ways that are unique and pleasing.  In the author’s own words, his aim is to make reading and writing “an enjoyable, uplifting experience rather than an unpleasant hurdle to cross.”

There are many thick anthologies (excellent as anthologies) in the market (such as The Bedford Introduction to Literature and The Norton Anthology).  They have vast reading selections but little if anything by way of interpretations of what is included in them.  Thus they are not much help to students who feel lost in the complexities of literature.  In contrast, Reading and Writing with Multicultural Literature offers abundant advice, all of it crystal clear, fortified with a generous number of samples.

A unique feature of the book is that the author has included many of his students’ outstanding essays, collected over the span of nearly 30 years.  These essays are used as realistic samples, quite accessible to most students and thus helpful to them in completing the book’s suggested assignments, all of which are stimulating and clearly worded.  Reading their peers’ well-crafted essays often inspires students to emulate or even surpass the samples.  This feature can help students shed some of their inhibitions, encouraging them to see that the goal of good writing is within their reach.  Essays by professional authors seldom have an inspiring effect because students too often find such highly accomplished works far beyond emulation—something they can admire but never hope to replicate.

In the many semesters I’ve used this book, I’ve always been pleased with the success my students have had in applying Dr. Jabbar’s guidelines and suggestions.  It’s exciting to see students so quickly put in touch with the essence of literature and the key methods of literary analysis and criticism.  This unusual textbook gives students the clearest possible step-by-step directions in reading, interpreting, explicating, and analyzing literary texts.  There are separate chapters on formal papers and informal journal entries, clearly explained and amply illustrated with samples.   Especially important is the fact that a student’s discovery and expression of theme receive special attention and in-depth treatment, concepts which are clearly reinforced throughout the book.

A welcome surprise is the chapter that introduces playful approaches to writing about literature, including parodies and burlesques of famous works, some by well-known authors, others by former students of Dr. Jabbar.  Counterintuitively, this chapter effectively demonstrates that sometimes the best way to gain a strong understanding of a serious work is to have fun with it, eschewing the solemn respect students too often feel they must profess.  Here we are treated to entertaining spins on serious themes, which nonetheless contain unexpected insights that take us from laughter to somber realizations.

Where style is concerned, students generally love the book’s many sets of instructions aimed at helping them improve their own writing style, instructions that go beyond the bare basics of composition and delve into the use of more sophisticated devices such as isocolon, anaphora, and chiasmus—devices that most students have never heard of much less tried to employ.  When students are introduced to these devices, I have found that they are often eager to try them in their writing, which in turn sparks their enthusiasm for developing their thinking and feeling about what they have read.  They learn the crucial, empowering skill of self-editing, which also makes them read with a writer’s eye.  In this respect, the chapter on “Style” and the one on “Revising” are crucial in helping students transition from being mere admirers of good writing to practitioners of it.  Students get a real feel for the elements of style and the variations in syntax that comprise the hallmark of lively, enjoyable, and compelling composition.  Dr. Jabbar encourages students to try everything, never prejudging their abilities, and letting them enjoy the results without fear of “failing,” because good writing grows in small but sure steps.

Most important of all, perhaps, is the book’s emphasis on multicultural literature, giving students a vital awareness of the diversity of subject and approach across many cultures, while simultaneously showing that all literary works share a common commitment to rendering human experience in all its conflicts and contrasts, exploring universal emotions, such as anger, fear, defeat, and despair, balanced by courage, hope, reconciliation, joy, love, and celebration.

I agree with the McGraw-Hill reviewers who praised Dr. Jabbar’s step-by-step instructions as the “best rubric” they had seen for writing a critical essay, adding that the book’s “down-to-earth tone” will certainly appeal to students and engage their interest.

 

Reading and Writing with Multicultural Literature:  In Search of Reconciliation and Peace (4th ed.) by Abdul Jabbar (Montezuma Publishing).  725 pp; $87.75; ISBN 978-0-7442-9784-3

 

MyPhoto(1)Brown Miller is an Emeritus Professor of English, City College of San Francisco, with over forty years experience teaching composition and literature. In addition, his poetry has been published widely in literary magazines and collected in several volumes, the most significant being Hiroshima Flows Through Us (Cherry Valley Editions, 1976).

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