Thursday, June 13, 2013

How to Read Literature, by Terry Eagleton

How to Read Literature
Author: Terry Eagleton
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: May 21, 2013
It seems to me that critiquing a book about literary criticism is somewhat akin to using a lathe to make another lathe. If the book is good, I should be even better at critiquing it, based on the new literary criticism tips I gained. But if I can't muster up an effective critique, surely that reflects poorly on both me AND the book? Then again, that's not a very good metaphor so I guess I'm not off to a great start. What I'm getting at is that it's all very circular. Not unlike a lathe. (Nailed it.)

But How to Read Literature is not itself literature, so I guess I wouldn't use its own advice to criticize it. But I do think I will use its advice elsewhere. It's not so much an all-inclusive guide to literary criticism or to reading (despite the suggestive title), nor is it a reference book that students could use as a quick guide to writing better essays for English class, though their essays would certainly be improved by having read the book. Rather, it's a more of a treatise on why one should read carefully, paying attention to the form and intent of a piece of writing and not simply its content. Eagleton rightly points out that literature is not merely information and should not be read just for the plot points. A novel is more than what it's about. It is also how it is written, the choices the author makes, the degree to which those choices are skillful and effective. 

Eagleton uses numerous examples (including novels, poems, and even Shakespeare and the bible) to illustrate the art of careful reading. None of these examples are full literary criticisms of the works in question, but anecdotal examples to help the reader in their own reading. For instance, Eagleton spends a fair bit of time analyzing what we can learn from the opening line of Moby Dick ("Call me Ishmael"). It does not amount to a book report of Melville's classic novel, nor does the example necessarily bring deep insight into the novel, but rather shows the reader the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves in our own reading.

I feel like I haven't quite done the book justice with this review. It isn't that I thought the book was extraordinary and I feel I haven't expressed that properly. No. I thought the book good (but not extraordinary). It was interesting and helpful, which I think I've explained. I suspect the reason I'm feeling self-conscious is because the book had a slight condescending tone that made me feel scolded. Terry Eagleton is a well-known and influential literary critic, a scholar who has spent his life in academia. And it shows. Passages like this, for example, make him seem like a flippant and arrogant misanthrope:

"But peering fondly into one's characters' futures is of course simply a literary device. Literary figures do not have futures, any more than incarcerated serial killers do."

Um, someone in prison does not cease to exist, Terry Eagleton, and that comparison is crass.

Final grade: B-

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

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