A Little History of Literature (Anglais) Relié – 27 septembre 2013
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It takes us only until the 5th chapter to get to Chaucer and we pretty much stay mainly on the British islands for the next 35. Sutherland, an expert in 19th Century British literature, pulls out interesting facts from all ages of writing and writes with a very light hand. But we get a full chapter on Hardy and Tennyson, but only a paragraph or two on Proust and Joyce and Kafka. He covers topics such as censorship, best sellers, screen adaptations and book prizes in their own chapters as well.
A chapter on Virginia Woolf is typical: covered are a short bio, a survey of her works, feminist criticism and the Bloomsbury Group. All in seven pages. But this is a "little" history so there is truth in advertising and when moving at this pace, there are no longeurs.
The book is continually entertaining, informative and very basic. It is like those tour buses that introduce you to a new city: showing you places that you may care to return to at some future time in order to linger.
As an English major myself, I felt Sutherland did a pretty good job of being comprehensive, as a far as covering most of the major literary movements. Of course, one cannot talk about every author that ever set quill to papyrus! He covers the classics of world literature, English literature, and American lit as well, and does a pretty good job of touching on the important highlights. He starts with a rudimentary explanation of myth, "Myth always contains a truth,which we understand before we can clearly see it or explain it." I felt throughout the book, Sutherland makes simple statements about whatever is being explored; he makes these observations himself, or quotes other experts and authors. This is the kind of book that will lead readers to other works, both of literature and of criticism. It is so important for kids to read and understand what true criticism is about these days. The idea of criticism has becomes so pejorative.
I didn't necessarily agree with every single thought the author has (Mr. Knightley, dull?! Never!), but overall, I enjoyed his style of writing, and he makes it clear that he is also a reader with opinions. He even addresses the EL James 50 Shades of Grey phenom: a "bonkbuster"), and popular lit vs prize winners. Other noteworthy topics: the Sagas, Anglo-Saxon literature, interactive literature, digital books, and poetry.
The author, John Sutherland, is a professor in London, and there were a few words that were clearly regional to England. This would be a great book for a middle school age child who is truly interested in reading and literature to read and discuss with an adult. I plan on giving it to my son to read as well. He is almost 13. It is not a difficult read, the prose style is conversational and often humorous. This could give anyone adult or teen, a leg up in English classes, or at a cocktail party!
These gripes aside, this 'little history' will satisfy lovers of literature like me who are interested to follow the treasure trail of developments in the tools (printing and publishing), authorship (copyright laws), milieus (romanticism, modernism, post modernism, dystopian, absurdist, existentialist, metaphysical, magic realism, etc), types (novels, poetry, plays, criticism) and trends (reading groups, bestsellers, ebooks, adaptations, literary prizes, etc) that lead us to the book that we have in our hands.
Easter eggs such as discovering that italics is so named because the first designer of the slanted type is from Italy, that font is so called because these are the receptacles of shapes where molten lead is poured to create the type, and that these fonts are stored in cases where the capital letters are found in the upper case, all add to the fun of reading this book. Many other tidbits such as these are inconspicuously found all over, and discovering them adds to the fun of reading.
Knowing the tumultuous and multi-branched scope of literature's historical development in this book gave me greater appreciation of all the books I've read and will read, and for that alone I cherish this book and highly recommend its reading.
It is not a manual or a textbook. It is, rather, as though the author has taken a series of lectures, letters, essays, and interviews and has rounded them out and organized them into an engaging survey, more or less arranged along a timeline, of mostly western literature. You can read it closely or a skim a bit, (if "Robinson Crusoe" or Jane Austen don't fascinate you), but either way, or both, you will pause at many rewarding and insightful passages. At the very least you will be entertained by Sutherland's agile mind and wide ranging interests.
I'm old enough to not really care for being told what to like or not like or what to admire or to dismiss, but I am always open to suggestion and engaging insight. That's what you get here. Fine by me. For what it's worth, while I enjoyed the book it does appear to have been written with a younger set of readers in mind. For older readers this would probably be more like a genial reintroduction to familiar works. For a curious younger reader this could be a real eye opener, and in that spirit I would especially recommend this book as likely to be accessible to and interesting to a YA reader.
Please note that I received a free advance ecopy of this book in exchange for a candid review. Apart from that I have no connection at all to either the author or the publisher of this book.
During the author's journey we encounter the likes of Homer, Chaucer, the Metaphysical Poets, Dr. Johnson, Jane Austen, the Romantic Poets, Kipling, Woolf and many others. John Sutherland finds the time to stop and tell us stories about Theatre in the Street, Who `owns' literature, The King James Bible and Literature and the censor. It may be `a little history' but the book is 284 pages long.
As with any book that crams a long history of any subject, and particularly literature, into relatively few pages there will be many people debating as to who should have been included within the author's pages. Personally, I believe the omission of the poet Stevie Smith when discussing the the `voice of pain' as an oversight. Ted Hughes believed that at the bottom of the inner most spirit of poetry is a `voice of pain'. Included in this discussion is the poets John Berryman, Anne Sexton. Both of these poets committed suicide and in their poetry they `signalled the act'. Stevie Smith is also a member of the suicide club that is very peculiar to poets. Personally, I believe her poetry is head and shoulders above that of John Berrymans and at least on a par with that of Anne Sexton.
I could take umbrage with Mr Sutherland over his decision not to mention or acknowledge the likes of Evelyn Waugh and E.E. Cummings. However, it would be small minded and churlish to dislike a book of this kind for not mentioning some of my favourite writers. John Sutherland's, if I can borrow a film metaphor, cutting room floor will be covered in the blood of writers who had to be chopped from the book due to lack of space and time.
John Sutherland has written this book in his own inimitable style; witty, erudite and unpatronizing. Like so many of John Sutherland's other books, `Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives' and `Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers' to name but a few, he manages to write in an informative, adroit, compelling manner that never becomes tedious or pedagogic in style.
I will leave the last word to the author: "This little history is not a manual but advice along the lines of, you may find this valuable, because many others have, but at the end of the day you must decide for yourself."