14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Infectious and engaging,
This review is from: A Little History of Literature (Little Histories) (Hardcover)
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)