Rated of 5
A Soldier Armed with a Love of Literature is Well-armed
In the context of teaching literature to West Point cadets, Elizabeth Samet addresses the persistent question, “Why read?” As strongly as she believes that she is arming them with something they need, she is fully aware of the responsive question posed by many cadets: “What’s the difference, ma’am? I’ll be in Iraq within a year anyway.”
Samet’s compassionate portrayal of the lives of West Point cadets introduces the day-to-day West Point life to the civilian reader. The personal details she offers about her students help the reader to see the cadets as individuals, rather than as interchangeable second lieutenants-to-be. When I reviewed the passages I had underlined, I noticed that most of those underlined passages were quotes of Dr. Samet’s students. She cared as much about her students as she cared about literature.
Samet is most successful when she combines the personal and the literary. Her allusions to characters and lines from her obviously vast reading are memorable when linked to the experiences of her students and colleagues. In particular, I expect to recall her analogy of the Ball Turret Gunner immortalized in Randall Jarrell’s 1945 poem to a colleague destroyed by an IED whenever I read Iraq war news.
Samet recognizes and develops the conflicting views of the citizen soldier and, generally, I was glad that she did not seem driven to take a point of view or tie her thoughts up with a neat bow. I very much enjoyed reading the first half of the book. Several of the later chapters in the book, dealing with religion, courage and sacrifice, however, lapsed into a stream-of-consciousness where she seemed to drift from one thought to another. These chapters suffered from the absence of a clear point of view and were much less readable than the chapters dealing with less elevated topics.