on 12 November 2013
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. 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."
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.
But these are small niggles: overall Sutherland conveys a lot of information in a short space. Most of all, his own enthusiasm comes over in an infectious manner, and he captures some of the exhilaration that all readers share: `Re-reading is one of the great pleasures that literature offers us. The great works of literature are inexhaustible - that is one of the things which makes them great'.
So this is like a whizz through a standard BA English degree in a short book. Sutherland is an engaging and generally knowledgeable guide: he shows us the highlights, the familiar and expected - the `tourist route' of English literature - but leaves much hidden and still to be explored.
(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
on 16 May 2014
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". For example, although Kafka, Camus and Sartre are trotted out to discuss the unsettling bits of 19th/20th century literary thought, it is Austen who is given most credit for developments in narrative form and prose technique when it was really Flaubert who broke the mould but who is just trumped up for a bit of scandal in the chapter on censorship [I know, I wanted more English than French but a point is there]... Similarly, Chaucer is the main man for the Ye Olde stuff but no European details are given. It's a short work and it works very well, but I do think there's a bit of a labelling clash. Of course, as Sutherland is an English professor, nobody should judge him for sticking to his strengths [which he does beautifully].
All in all, buy it and read it. You'll learn a lot and you'll enjoy this stroll through the annals of the written word.
At one point in his introduction Professor Sutherland observes that, "[i]f we read well, we find ourselves in a conversational relationship with the most creative minds of our own time and of the past". Putting aside what some modern literary critics would think of this comment, it does nicely sum up Professor Sutherland's approach to literature and offers a rewarding way in which to approach this book.
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.
This is an enjoyable history of English Literature which consists of short essays on everything from early myths, through Shakespeare, the very first novels, poetry, Austen, Dickens, literature for (and about) children, the censorship of books and all the way up to today, with bestsellers, book prizes and reading groups being discussed.
Although this does not really give you a great deal of depth about any particular topic/author, it is a great introduction and very readable. A good starting point for anyone wishing to extend their reading, or wanting to read the classics and being unsure of where to start. All the major authors, as well as important movements – from Romanticism to Modernism – are mentioned here. From Woolf to Proust and the Bronte’s, this is a great overview of classic literature through the ages.
Since childhood, I have cherished books as "magic carpets" by which to visit human experiences that would not have otherwise been accessible to me. The ten-year siege of Troy, for example, and then Odysseus' ten-year return voyage to Ithaca as well as the Italian Renaissance (and Dante), the Age of Elizabeth (and Shakespeare), and more recently, Hawthorne's New England, Dickens' London, Twain's Mississippi, and Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
More often than not, I am reading and/or re-reading three or four books at any one time and that was the situation recently when accompanying two of my favorite authors, Michael Dirda and John Sutherlnd, during their explorations of great literature in this book as well as in Dirda's On Conan Doyle (2012) and Classics for Pleasure (2007).
This is not a definitive or even rigorous analysis of each of the major British authors and their major works. Rather, Sutherland shares what is of greatest interest to him. He also discusses transitions from literary one period to the next as well as recurring themes, correlations, and legacies. His selections and comments are subjective and that suits me just fine. In some cases I was revisiting old friends such as Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Conrad, and Orwell. In other instances, he shares his perspectives on literary subjects that range from "Fabulous Beginnings: Myth" and "The Book of Books: The King James Bible" to "Under the Blankets: Literature and Children" and "Magical Realisms: Borges, Grass, Rushdie, and Márquez." Given Sutherland's stated purposes, the scope of coverage is far greater than the depth of commentary.
Here is Dallas there is a Farmer's Market near the downtown area at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now share a few brief excerpts that suggest the thrust and flavor of Sutherland's style:
o "British literature is founded on this 3,182-line Anglo-Saxon poem [i.e. Gilgamesh]. It was probably composed in the eight century, drawing on old fables that went even further back into the mists of time. It was brought to England in some earlier form by invading European, then it was recited orally for centuries with countless variations, before being transcribed by an unknown monk (who made some tactful Christian insertions) in the tenth century." (Page 15)
o "The great epics [e.g. Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Beowulf] are still highly enjoyable to read, although mot of us will be obliged to read them at one remove, in translation. In many ways, epics are literary dinosaurs. They once dominated, by virtue of sheer size, but now they belong in the museum of literature. We can still admire them, as we admire the other mighty works of our national ancestors, but, sadly, we seem no longer able to make them." (19)
o "In our respect for the Authorized Version [i.e. of the King James Bible] -- the only true great work of literature in English for which we can thank a king -- we should never forget William Tyndale. He is an author of equal standing, one might claim, with the greatest in his language. And that does not exclude Shakespeare." (53)
o The Romantic movement "burned too hot to last long. Effectively it was burned out in Britain by the time of [Sir Walter] Scott' death in 1832 and the country's own 'quiet' political revolution, the First reform Bill. But Romanticism changed, forever, the ways in which literature was written and read. It bequeathed to the writers who came after, and who cared to use it, a new power. Not bright stars, but burning stars." (100)
o Despite passage of the Obscene Publications Art in 1959 that allowed publication of "works of art" such as Lawrence's novel, Lady Chatterley' Lover, "The fight again censorship in the world continues, as every issue of the London-based journal, Index on Censorship, testifies. It is a constant battle. Literature, literary history demonstrates, can do great thing under oppression, in chains. or in exile. It can even, like the phoenix, rise from the flames of its own destruction. It is a glorious vindication of the human spirit that it can do so." (167)
o Final thoughts: "What's the worst thing that could happen in the future? If readers were to become swamped -- buried under a mass of information they could not process into knowledge -- that would be very bad. But I remain hopeful, and with good reason. Literature, that wonderfully creative product of the human mind, will, in whatever new forms and adaptations it takes, forever be a part of our lives, enriching our lives. I say ours, but I should say yours -- and your children's." (266)
Sutherland devotes an entire chapter, the sixteenth, to Charles Dickens (1812-187) and suggests "five good arguments why modern readers should also see that Dickens is the greatest ever novelist. First is that Dickens was, over the course of his long writing career, uniquely inventive...The second reason for Dickens's greatness is that he was the first novelist not merely to make children the heroes and heroines of his fiction (as in Oliver Twist) but also to make his reader appreciate how vulnerable and easily bruised a child is, and how unlike an adult's is the child's-view of the world...He was to become a mirror of his changing age -- the third reason we consider him a great writer. No novelist has been more sensitive to his own times than Dickens...Our fourth point. It was not simply the fact that Dickens's fiction [begin italics] reflected [end italics]. He was the first novelist to appreciate that fiction could [begin italics] change [end italics] the world...Lastly, and most importantly, one of the things that gives Dickens's novels their everlasting appeal is his honest belief in the essential goodness of people. Us, that is."
As indicated earlier, given Sutherland's stated purposes, the scope of his coverage is far greater than the depth of commentary. In my opinion, the primary purpose of the material is to provide what can be viewed as a "map" that help each reader to determine the nature and extent of her or his subsequent exploration. If book are magic carpets, and I believe they are, we still need magicians to identify possible destinations. Thank you so much, John Sutherland!
* * *
John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London. He has taught students at every level and is the author and editor of more than twenty books. His most recent book, the popular Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, was also published by Yale University Press in the US, and has earned widespread acclaim. I urge you to check out his Amazon page.
on 7 April 2014
I suppose to a certain extent there has to be a certain degree of subjectivity with a topic like this. I had problems with it because the author did not really qualify his decisions as to why certain authors were included in the text. There were some really interesting nuggets of interest but these really were few and far between. What attracted me to this book is it is written by an English Professor and it covered works literature rather than just English Literature. but at 265 pages long it was it just touched on ideas and concepts while spending too much time on biographies of authors. The author seemed to favour biography over the literature itself and the historical times in which each was written.
For someone totally new to literature this will be a real eye opener. It can give you a good idea of names for your "must-read lists" and does give a standard overview of the world of literature. I just left it feeling more had been left out than put in.
on 6 September 2015
Short, pithy and easy to read.
on 29 December 2014
This was a Christmas present, which is why this is not a 'verified' review. It is brilliant. Clearly following in the footsteps of E H Gombrich, this is a snapshot, a digestible and inspiring read, that takes you through the little history of literature in a charming and engaging way. It was like taking a mini degree. John, do the world a favour and write a 'Big history of literature' for people who want to learn more. Like me.
on 19 December 2013
But had to be called 'little' because it has to be selective in its subject matter. Nevertheless John Sutherland obviously knows - and enjoys - his subject and gives us the full benefit of this in this well written and expansive survey of English language literature.