How to Read Literature

From The Guardian:

No-one-cares-whether-you--010Terry Eagleton was once the bad boy of English studies. His seminal textbook Literary Theory introduced generations of students to what their tutors feared was the mind-rotting influence of the continent. But his new book is a more traditional affair. Aimed at “readers and students”, it is a personable stroll through a predictable canon: Charlotte Brontë, Forster, Keats, Milton, Hardy et al – plus JK Rowling, perhaps thrown in so as not to appear snobbish. The avuncular prof cautions his audience not to read in certain ways (no one cares whether you like the characters or not), and aims to show, through close reading of selected passages of poetry and prose, how to appreciate the best of what's been thought and said. Eagleton has many interesting things to say – as it were, in passing – about Conrad, Milton and so on, in a series of thematic chapters that focus in turn on “Openings”, “Character”, “Narrative”, “Interpretation” and “Value”. There are some longueurs, as when he devotes four pages to an elaborate reading of the nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep” in order to show why such an interpretation is under-justified by the text, but overall it's an amiable affair. Charming, too, to find that Eagleton is a kind of happy existentialist who finds support for such an attitude in modernist (and proto-postmodernist) literature. “Works of fiction like Tristram Shandy, Heart of Darkness, Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway,” he remarks with cheering optimism, “can serve to free us from seeing human life as goal-driven, logically unfolding and rigorously coherent. As such, they can help us to enjoy it more.”

The book's knottiest chapter is the last, on “Value”, in which Eagleton considers various criteria for what literary value might be and gleefully demolishes them all. Must good literature be groundbreakingly original? In that case, Eagleton points out, “we would be forced to deny the value of a great many literary works, from ancient pastoral and medieval mystery plays to sonnets and folk ballads”. Should literature speak to our everyday concerns? Balls to that: “If we are inspired only by literature that reflects our own interests, all reading becomes a form of narcissism. The point of turning to Rabelais or Aristophanes is as much to get outside our own heads as to delve more deeply into them.”

Picture: 'Dostoevsky is better than Grisham in the sense that Tiger Woods is a better golfer than Lady Gaga' … Terry Eagleton.

More here.