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3.9 out of 5 stars20
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 4 January 2011
For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare's sonnets, this is an easy-to-read, common-sensible introduction - a great place to start; but remember it is a personal view. If you are familiar with the text and with the usual lit. crit., you will find this idiosyncratic, fresh, and readable as a novel.
After he has said of Vendler's 'The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets', `Her book is a supreme example of the kind of book there should be more of', he adds, `I'm having my copy rubberised so I can catch it again after I've thrown it at the wall.' I feel exactly the same way about his book: there ought to be more like it and sometimes I want to throw it at the wall. If you love Shakespeare, this is a book to which you will not be indifferent.
I did not buy this book earlier because it was criticised for missing objectives that, I now know, Paterson did not have. Did the critics read the Introduction? There, Paterson sets out clearly his purpose. He distinguishes between `secondary reading' (more or less, serious literary criticism) and `primary reading' (more or less, responding directly to what a poem says). He gives as his aim, `to show [the sonnets] as poems still capable of inviting and rewarding the kind of primary reading I've described, and this is what this book sets out to do.' And his book does that superbly.
Paterson's great strength is in being a poet himself and saying, with some authority, things outside the normal range of critical comment, things like `[so-and-so] rather takes it all at face value - as do most other commentators, forgetting that poets often just tell folk what they think they want to hear, themselves included.' It's about time somebody said things like that. And he says many things like that in the book.
No faults? For me, only two irritations. Except for the famous and crucial ones, I do not remember the sonnets by their numbers and I would have liked an index of first lines. And an index to the commentary would be useful so that you can find the interesting bits, like `where did Paterson discuss rime riche?' He discusses a lot of interesting things in the commentary but finding them is hell. Perhaps he omitted indexes to keep away from even a semblance of heavy lit. crit.
This is a book where you can hear the writer's voice come through, and he's talking sense.
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on 24 November 2010
I learned about this book from an article Don Paterson wrote for The Guardian and his concept of approaching the sonnets as a modern reader appealed to me. In the article as in the book, Paterson's concludes that Shakespeare was gay, which must have touched a raw nerve as he drew a lot of negative comments. However, that did not put me off ordering the book and I am very much enjoying Paterson's down-to-earth and witty commentary on the sonnets. The only reason I gave the book four rather than five stars is that the editor failed to correct a lot of typos or at least I hope the errors I have found are typos. Presumably, they will be corrected before the paperback is published.
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on 14 March 2012
Don Paterson is a lively and friendly -- funny even -- guide to the sonnets. It is clear, moreover, that he means it when he says he wrote the book in all kinds of states and circumstances: thoughtful, drunk, hungover, insomniac. All in all, his rhetorical style reminds me of no one else's as much as chef/author Nigel Slater.
His unbuttoned manner, however, results in lots of unexplained jargon of the lit-crit and lad-Brit (Scot?) varieties. We ignorant Yanks will need a glossary whenever an American publisher decides a transatlantic edition is worth taking a chance -- and it is.
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on 26 January 2013
This is an educated and erudite book about William Shakespeare's famous love sonnets. Paterson, a distinguished poet himself, shows us in common language and with little pretence the art that Shakespeare employed in his vivid descriptions of his passions for a man and a woman. It's an essential aid to reaching the goal of a real understanding of the sonnets and to poetry more generally.
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on 27 November 2010
This is a hugely enjoyable read, bringing the sonnets alive to modern readers; a passionate and engaging polemic which was disastrously misunderstood by Adam Mars Jones in the Guardian/Observer.Really worth every penny.
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on 12 October 2012
This book appeals to me as the author gives not only his expertise on construction of and language used in the sonnets, but also gives his personal response to them. Bitesize for adults and, for me,a good introduction to the sonnets without buying an academic tome that would probably give me too much information for an introduction and even take away my initial response to them. Download the sample if you have a kindle and read the author's reason for writing this book if you are interested.
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on 24 June 2014
Don Paterson admits that he wrote this book 'in a tearing hurry' and it certainly shows. Hopefully some of the many mistakes will be excised from future editions. It is infuriating, fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Half of the time you want to stop reading, punch Paterson's bald head for a while and then return to it. The only thing that makes Paterson's patronising arrogance and condescension supportable is the fact that he is a good poet himself.
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A fan of Shakespeare's Sonnets for as long as I can remember reading, I, like Don Paterson, still do not know them as well as I'd like to think - and, like Don Paterson, have been caught out in a bluff or two in academic circles accordingly! Reading this book has helped me readjust my thinking as well as improving my knowledge.

This is an individualistic view of the Sonnets from an academic and a poet. Paterson has taken each of the 154 Sonnets in turn and written a Reaction Piece on each: not a critique as such, but an informed individual's response written in one sitting, effectively. The learning which has informed the reaction is always interesting, and if the style at times is a little too colloquial to make easy the transition between Shakespeare's verse (each Sonnet is printed before the response) and Don Paterson's prose, at least this reinforces the dialogue which Paterson is building between writer and reader. It also helps to break down the false reverence for "The Bard", something that can come between a real relationship with the work itself.

I also like the way that Paterson looks at the Sonnets as works of craft as well as of art: the poet pulling together complex emotions into a standard sonnet form, at times it seems hammering language and emotion into a shape that works.

I don't agree with a lot of what Paterson says (well, actually I agree with much, but it's the disagreements that stand out - for example his reaction to Sonnet 144!) but that only makes the text more engaging, and actually helped to sharpen up my own critical response. It's also spurred me to learn by heart more of the Sonnets, and (re)introduced me to some that I MUST have read but had no recollection of whatsoever!

Perhaps my final comment to show how good this book is: I lent it to a colleague two weeks ago, and she refuses to give it back!
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on 8 January 2016
Some time ago, I set myself the long, pleasurable task of reading all Shakespeare's plays with the help of commentaries (mainly Arden) and the RSC DVDs. Not a quick read, but falling short of full academic study. I left the sonnets to the end (apart from Troilus which I think is unreadable and yet to be finished), so I was quite accustomed to the poet's language. Some of the criticisms here sound a bit high-minded, oblivious of the fact that readers coming to the sonnets for the first time do need help and shouldn't be ashamed of seeking it. The English language has changed over five centuries and even the ordering of Shakespeare's words can seem unfamiliar, confusing and obscure. I know that this book has many typos and similar. His jokey style either hits the target (one of his critiques around no. 130 had me in stitches) or it misfires badly, very often obscuring the very point which he is trying to make. I had to refer to my specialist dictionary to understand the more abstruse literary terms which Mr. Paterson applies to the text - he begins by explaining them and seems to lose interest as the book progresses. However, I suppose many readers come to the sonnets with the view that they will be all sweetness and light, lovey-dovey - and this they certainly are not (or mainly not). You need a book like the Arden commentary to understand what Shakespeare is saying, the verbal twists, the topical references - in other words, elucidation. But there's more to it than that. The poet was a highly sensitive human being and truly screwed up in his love life. The bitterness, jealousy, sense of inferiority, status-consciousness, guilt, self-reproach all come through strongly in the poems, and it is helpful to have someone to bring this together and 'humanise' the dry commentary. But there's more to it than that again. This is poetry. Although I wish he had done it more often, Mr. Paterson brings his own 'poet's ear' to the poetry, the language, its balance, the prosody and the strengths and weaknesses of each poem in expressing the sentiment which it carries. To me this has been invaluable. If he concentrated on that alone in a future volume, I would be happy.
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on 22 June 2012
This is a wonderful book and will make you actually READ the Sonnets. It's engaging, funny, wise, and a real service to literature. Just what we needed! I have a sneaking feeling that WS would have liked it!
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