How to Read Literature: On Heightened Sensitivity to Language

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The  distinguished literary critic Terry Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster is the author of more than forty books. He has recently written a new book entitled How to Read literature, and I want to recommend it as a primer for what Nietzsche called “slow reading.” Quoting from the jacket of the book, “In a series of brilliant analyses, Eagleton shows how to read with due attention to tone, rhythm, texture, syntax, allusion, ambiguity, and other formal aspects of literary works. He also examines broader questions of character, plot, narrative, the creative imagination, the meaning of fictionality, and the tension between what works of literature say and what they show. Unfailingly authoritative and cheerfully opinionated, the author provides useful commentaries on Classicalism, Romanticism, Modernism and Postmodernism alongside spellbinding insights into a huge range of authors, from Shakespeare and Jane Austen to Samuel Beckett and J.K. Rowling.”

Here is Eagleton himself describing his purpose: “In these brief critical exercises, I have tried to show some of the various strategies literary criticism may involve. You can analyse the sound-texture of a passage, or fasten on what seem significant ambiguities, or look at the way grammar and syntax are put to work. You can examine the emotional attitudes that a passage seems to take up to what it is presenting, or focus on some revealing paradoxes, discrepancies and contradictions. Tracking down the unspoken implications of what is said can sometimes be important. Judging the tone of a passage, and how this may shift or waver, can be equally productive. It can be helpful to try to define the exact quality of a piece of writing. It may be sombre, off-hand, devious, colloquial, terse, jaded, glib, theatrical, ironic, laconic, artless, abrasive, sensuous, sinewy and so forth What all these critical strategies have in common is their heightened sensitivity to language. Even exclamation marks may be worth a few sentences of critical comment. One might call all this the ‘micro’ aspects of literary criticism. But there are ‘macro’ issues too, such as character, plot, theme, narrative and the like, and it is to these that we can how turn.”

This illuminating book on the evocative powers of language belongs on the shelf with Why Poetry Matters, by Jay Parini, and Classics for Pleasure, by Michael Dirda, and along side the literary criticism of Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom, among others. In an age when language is so often reduced to propaganda, advertising, platitudes and banalities, it is refreshing to read literary critics like Eagleton who remind us that the “literary” uses of language can be something more…at once brilliant, dazzling, seductive, nuanced, subtle, poignant, symbolic, metaphorical, flamboyant, melodious, rhapsodic, sauntering, galloping, ironic, romantic, picturesque, heroic, blunt, oblique, witty, deft, sly, slap-stick, sagacious,  and laugh-out-loud funny.

It is not enough to simply read literature. We must learn HOW to read it, for literature is a highly complex and multi-layered form of written communication. It speaks to the whole person and to the full panoply of possibilities. It uses a vast array of rhetorical strategies to inspire, enchant, inform, delight, amuse, perplex, intrigue, tease and terrify us as it exhibits in vivid display the many sides of our polyphonic nature within the kaleidoscopic experiences of life. The reading of literature will not only give us “a heightened sensitivity to language” but also to the wildly variegated ways in which persons (born into different circumstances and thrust into ambiguous situations) come to understand, interpret and respond to the daunting, delightful and dizzying challenges of living. As someone tersely put it, “to read literature is to live twice.”

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