Review by: Kate Bernas

Wayne State University

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The academic advisor with an appreciation for literature, an interest in American culture, or a desire to more thoroughly examine one of the critical acts of our profession—making a choice—will find much to think about in David Orr’s “The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong.” The author provides an intelligent, challenging and exhaustive examination of what is arguably the most recognized and widely recited poems in all American culture, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

Through his slim, yet dense, literary examination of Frost’s best-known poem that begins “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” Orr takes the reader through a study of what has become a cultural phenomenon by looking at it through four distinct lenses: the poet, the poem, the chooser, and the choice. Before that, however, he sets the stage for these approaches by providing convincing evidence of the poem’s immense popularity and examining the reasons it is so often misquoted and misunderstood. Indeed, according to Orr, these misunderstandings arise out of the two distinct audiences of Frost’s piece: the masses of readers who recite its lines at graduations, retirements and other life events as a celebration of stoic individualism and those who—rightly—read it as a complex and contradictory examination of choice, regret and self-deception.  

While Orr’s examination of the poet and the poem provide a fascinating and thorough deconstruction of the man and his most recognized work, it is the sections on the choice and the chooser that will resonate most with the advising professional. Examining, clarifying, and supporting choice is what we do at all stages of our work with students, from major selection and course planning to discussions on which extracurricular activities, research project, or internship experience to pursue. Frost’s poem provides us a multifaceted examination of choice and choosing that is especially meaningful to college-age students as they find themselves at crossroads, looking out toward their future selves.

Orr’s examination, however, reaches way beyond our common understanding of the topic. Indeed he leaves no construct of social science, psychological research, existential philosophy, or device of literary analysis unturned as he delves for meaning in each line dealing with the concept of choice (as an American ideal), one’s ability to make a choice (determinism vs. free will), and the substance of our identity before, during, and after making a choice (concepts of liminality). At times the research and philosophical inquiry takes us far afield of what should be a simple reflection on the how and why of decision making, elevated by poetry.

In addition to those advisors interested in a thorough understanding of the nature of choice and the person who makes that choice, other advisors well practiced in Appreciative Inquiry and who make use of “bibliotherapy” in its Discover phase (Cook, 2009) might also find Orr’s examination of special interest by providing insight in and inspiration for the use of Frost’s work. Literature can provide a powerful tool for building rapport, promoting communication, and enhancing understanding between students and advisors. “The Road Not Taken,” both the poem and this examination of it, shows a way to lead both the advisor and advisee to the right path.

The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. (2016). David Orr. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books. 172 pp. $16.00. ISBN: 978-0-14-310957-0.

Posted in: 2016 Book Reviews
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