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A Little History of Literature (Little Histories) [Hardcover]

John Sutherland
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
RRP: 14.99
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Book Description

27 Sep 2013 Little Histories
This 'little history' tackles a very big subject: the glorious span of literature from Greek myth to graphic novels, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Harry Potter. John Sutherland is perfectly suited to the task, having researched, taught and written on every area of literature. His infectious passion for books and reading has defined his own life. Now he guides young readers and adults on an entertaining journey revealing how literature from across the world can transport us and help us to make sense of what it means to be human. Sutherland introduces great classics in his own irresistible way, enlivening his offerings with humour as well as learning: Beowulf, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, the Romantics, Dickens, Moby Dick, The Waste Land, Woolf, 1984 and dozens of others. He adds to these a less-expected, personal selection of authors and works, including literature usually considered well below 'serious attention' - from the rude jests of Anglo-Saxon runes to The Da Vinci Code. With masterful digressions into various themes - censorship, narrative tricks, self-publishing, taste, creativity and madness - Sutherland demonstrates the full depth and intrigue of reading.

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A Little History of Literature (Little Histories) + Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives + How to be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (27 Sep 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300186851
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300186857
  • Product Dimensions: 21.9 x 14.8 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 164,358 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Praise for John Sutherland: 'John Sutherland is among the handful of critics whose every book I must have. He's sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, with a generous heart and a wise head.' - Jay Parini

About the Author

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature, University College London. A trenchant critic and columnist, he has taught students at every level and is the author or editor of more than 20 books including Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Lives of the Novelists.

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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Infectious and engaging 12 Oct 2013
By Roman Clodia TOP 50 REVIEWER
This is an engaging short history of literature that would serve first-year English undergraduates well, as well as general readers. It is mainly focused on English (British) literature though it does start with Gilgamesh (Sumerian) and Homer's Greek epics, and touches briefly on Europeans such as Kafka, Proust, and a few Americans. I would describe this as a conservative book with few surprises: so the whole of the English Renaissance is reduced to just Shakespeare, and all the `canonical' writers are here.

I guess a book this short inevitably has to make compromises and we would all write a different `history of literature' according to our own perspectives and interests. Some of Sutherland's exclusions and excisions surprised me, though: classical Latin literature disappears completely as we jump from Greek tragedy to Anglo-Saxon and then Chaucer. Sophocles' Greek play Oedipos Tyrannos is, oddly and incorrectly, given a Latin name, Oedipus Rex: Sutherland is right, of course, that King Lear draws on this text but Shakespeare would most probably have known it via Seneca's Latin Oedipus Rex, not in Sophocles' Greek original.

There are also some surprisingly old-fashioned and out-dated ways of reading poetry as biography (`the sonnets offer rare insights into Shakespeare the man', `Shakespeare may have been bisexual'), and some statements made as facts which can, from the evidence of the texts, be proved wrong: `today we are, generally speaking, more sophisticated than our predecessors three centuries ago' - er, really? The original readers of, for example, Milton's Paradise Lost, or Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, or Donne's `metaphysical' poetry, not to mention Virgil's Aeneid from even earlier were as or, possibly, more sophisticated readers than we, generally, are.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A little is as good as a feast. 12 Nov 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
John Sutherland, author of A Little History of Literature, takes us by the hand and leads us safely through the deep, heavily wooded forest that is the written word. As the author states in his introduction to the book, "...literature is not a little thing. There is hugely more of it than any of us will read in a lifetime." Thankfully the author utilises a path constructed of wonderful books that make the journey a very pleasant affair.
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.
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4.0 out of 5 stars This little history is a little gem 16 May 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I confess to being a bit of an [unsuccessful] academic snob. I left university knowing a decent amount about French and Arabic literature but little general or English-specific information about literature. I therefore wanted a comprehensive survey and looked about for some heavy, weighty, clever books to make my shelves look more intelligent than their owner. Of course, this book doesn't fit into that category [it has cute little pictures and mentions Fifty Shades of Filth and Bob Dylan], but I popped it into my cart at the end of my trip as I enjoyed John Sutherland's 'Desert Island Discs' broadcast and thought it would be 'nice'. So far, needless to say it's the only one I've read and most likely the only one I'll enjoy.

It's a terrific book, written with a charming balance of erudition, honesty, enthusiasm and self-deprecation. Not once does Sutherland wave his credentials in your face; rather, he's an expert in the 'Show, Don't Tell' school of authorship as he guides the reader throughout the history of the written word - and makes it very easy to enjoy and absorb in the process.

Whereas I was expecting a chiefly chronological survey divided into dates, Sutherland's book is split into 40-odd chapters on different literary ideas or phenomena, which, although they follow a broad chronological outline in that they start with Athens scrolls and end with Kindle misery, focus more on authors' modes, styles and contexts for their writing.

I've given four stars as I couldn't help thinking that this should really be called "A Little History of Literature through the lens of ENGLISH Literature, with some foreign bits thrown in to fill the important gaps we Brits couldn't manage".
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