Thu, Aug 01, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: How to Read Literature

By Steven Poole  /  The Guardian, London

How to Read Literature, By Terry Eagleton.

Terry Eagleton was once the bad boy of English studies. His textbook Literary Theory introduced generations of students to what their tutors feared was the mind-rotting influence of the continent. But his new book is a more traditional affair. Aimed at “readers and students,” it is a personable stroll through a predictable canon: Charlotte Bronte, Forster, Keats, Milton, Hardy et al. — plus JK Rowling, perhaps thrown in so as not to appear snobbish. The avuncular prof cautions his audience not to read in certain ways, and aims to show, through close reading of selected passages of poetry and prose, how to appreciate the best of what’s been thought and said.

As is generally the case with the later Eagleton, the book is often funny, and it is trying hard to be funny slightly more often than that. The best jokes are also critical observations, e.g. that Shakespeare’s Othello “is a man who seems curiously aware that he is speaking Shakespearean blank verse.” Running throughout is a critique of modernity: Eagleton attributes most faulty assumptions about what literature should do and how we should read it — for example, “the doctrine of literature as self-expression,” which he dismantles with delicious sarcasm.”

Eagleton has many interesting things to say about Conrad, Milton and so on, in a series of thematic chapters that focus in turn on “Openings,” “Character,” “Narrative,” “Interpretation” and “Value.” There are some longueurs, as when he devotes four pages to an elaborate reading of the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep in order to show why such an interpretation is under-justified by the text, but overall it’s an amiable affair. Charming, too, to find that Eagleton is a kind of happy existentialist who finds support for such an attitude in modernist (and proto-postmodernist) literature. “Works of fiction like Tristram Shandy, Heart of Darkness, Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway,” he remarks with cheering optimism, “can serve to free us from seeing human life as goal-driven, logically unfolding and rigorously coherent. As such, they can help us to enjoy it more.”

Publication Notes

How to Read Literature

By Terry Eagleton

232 pages

Yale University press

Hard back: US


The book’s knottiest chapter is the last, on “Value,” in which Eagleton considers various criteria for what literary value might be and gleefully demolishes them all. Must good literature be groundbreakingly original? In that case, Eagleton points out, “we would be forced to deny the value of a great many literary works, from ancient pastoral and medieval mystery plays to sonnets and folk ballads.” Should literature speak to our everyday concerns? Balls to that: “If we are inspired only by literature that reflects our own interests, all reading becomes a form of narcissism. The point of turning to Rabelais or Aristophanes is as much to get outside our own heads as to delve more deeply into them.”

Nor, Eagleton demonstrates incisively, can we demand profundity (“There can be a superb art of the surface”) or coherence (“many an effective postmodern or avant-garde work is centerless and eclectic”), or richness of narrative (see Waiting for Godot). Nonetheless, he insists, there are criteria for determining literary value. The criteria are “public,” and embedded in the set of “social practices” known as “literary criticism.” It is thanks to the existence of such criteria that he is confident in pronouncing: “Dostoevsky is better than [John] Grisham in the sense that Tiger Woods is a better golfer than Lady Gaga.”

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