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How to Read Literature Hardcover – May 21, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In this serious but breezy and idiosyncratic take on how to read and enjoy literature, English critic Eagleton performs an important if basic service, distinguishing the way people talk about fiction, drama, or poetry from the way we discuss real life. His emphasis is on form—how literature works—rather than content. The book’s chapter headings—Openings, Character, Narrative, Interpretation, and Value—summarize, but do not do justice to, his sophisticated approach. Eagleton’s erudition is supplemented with entertaining if occasionally over-the-top wit, most notably in his close textual analysis of Baa Baa Black Sheep and in his conclusion regarding the quality of literature, invoking the atrocious Scottish poet William ­McGonagall. His literary examples are well chosen and largely canonical—­including Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen (but also the Harry Potter series)—and are predominantly, although not exclusively, British. Eagleton does not elucidate how he expects his audience, which presumably doesn’t yet know how to read literature, to be familiar with these, or any, authors. More seriously, though, his book should appeal to readers of James Wood’s more traditional How Fiction Works (2008). --Mark Levine


"This is Eagleton at his most charming and an excellent guide for literature students early in their education or those seeking a refresher course."—Publishers Weekly
(Publishers Weekly)

"A genial guide to exactly what the title promises. . . This short book benefits from a conversational, even humorous tone. . . Includes a very funny exegesis of 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' and an interpretive linkage of Dickens and Harry Potter."—Kirkus Reviews 
(Kirkus Reviews)

“Part of the fun of the book is the way in which Eagleton prompts, provokes and at times infuriates. How to read How to Read Literature? an ideal introductory guide to critical analysis, and a thoroughly enjoyable reminder of Eagleton’s own skill and subtlety as a reader.”—Felicity James, Times Higher Education Supplement
(Felicity James Times Higher Education Supplement 2013-07-25)

"A pleasingly readable overview of what we talk about when we talk about books. . . . Incisive and honest."—Michael Washburn, Boston Globe
(Michael Washburn Boston Globe)

"How to Read Literature is a lively and engaging primer on basic strategies for appreciating literature, a kind of English 101 in a book."—Washington Post
(Washington Post)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1st edition (May 21, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300190964
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300190960
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #584,454 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Terry Eagleton is John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester. His numerous books include The Meaning of Life, How to Read a Poem, and After Theory.

Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Charlus on May 13, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This book is one in a long line of volumes that propose to teach you how to read: Harold Bloom, John Sutherland, James Wood and countless others have proposed the same and, I assume, each successor has felt his or her forerunner has not accomplished the task. When each new volume is released I always wonder who is the supposed audience for this perceived needed instruction: undergraduates but only if this book is assigned, the stray common reader who wants to impress her reading group, myself?

Mr. Eagleton, who has the ability to sling Theory with the best, here tones himself down for the Freshman undergrad and writes with admirable clarity and glimmers of wit (which frequently fall flat but one appreciates the effort nonetheless). He defines Literature in its broadest sense: novel, poetry and drama are included and, this being a very brief book, he can only make quick stabs at covering the territory. He demonstrates a sharp ear at analyzing various Openings of literary work in his first chapter (A Passage to India, Macbeth, the Bible, Pride and Prejudice, Keats, Milton) with acute observations. Of the Bible he writes:

"Perhaps whoever wrote [the first three words of the Bible] imagine that time began at a certain point, and when it did so God created the universe. But we know today that there would be no time without the universe. Time and the universe sprang into being simultaneously"(p.19).

He then goes on to analyze various characters in literature and how different literary movements (Classicism, Romanticism, etc) changed the nature of the literary character.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Hans U. Widmaier on June 6, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a totally captivating read, as well as the best (and by far the most painless) introduction to literary criticism and theory that I have seen. Eagleton keeps the lit crit jargon to an absolute minimum. He simply shows how to read well. But, of course, all of his vast knowledge of literary theory informs how he reads. That's what makes this book so valuable. You can actually see how a truly great literary theorist approaches works of literature.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Terry Eagleton's "How to Read Literature" is an entertaining and instructive guide that will help students of novels, short stories, plays, and poetry plumb the deeper meaning of what they have read. To achieve insight into literary texts, one must pay careful attention to a variety of elements, including syntax, symbolism, tone, word usage, character, plot, and narrative structure. "How to Read Literature" is erudite, witty, and profound without being too stuffy; it is also, at times, laugh-out-loud funny.

Eagleton packs a great deal of information into his two-hundred-page book. He makes us question some of our long-held assumptions about the nature of literature, teaches us how to appreciate literary works, and offers criteria for judging their value. In addition, Eagleton piques our interest with thought-provoking and provocative observations on such works as "Paradise Lost," "Othello," "Jane Eyre," "Great Expectations," "Jude the Obscure," "A Passage to India," and even "Harry Potter."

Professor Eagleton suggests what we should be looking for when we examine a work of literature: How does the author begin? What mood does he create? Are the characters and plot realistic or fanciful? What, if anything, does the work teach us about the human condition? How does the author's use of language, symbolism, irony, and imagery create a desired effect on the reader? From whose point of view is the story told, and is he or she a reliable narrator?

When Eagleton discusses fiction vs. reality, realism vs. modernism, and neo-classicism vs. romanticism, his prose becomes so technical that some laymen will find it difficult to grasp. Eagleton's ideas are more accessible when he focuses on particular characters, passages, or images.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By not a natural on April 27, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The institutional economist John Kenneth Galbraith once made the succinct and witty judgment that writing a book is inevitably an exercise in ego. Given that he was a prolific author and a celebrity intellectual, I imagine he was speaking for himself. Galbraith, however, wrote far fewer books than Terry Eagleton, and no doubt there will be more to come before Eagleton turns off his word processor and calls it a career. Evidently, Eagleton remains convinced that he has a lot more to teach us about a lot of things, especially language, literature, and culture and their nature and uses. I've never been disappointed in anything I've read by Eagleton, though The Idea of Culture seemed unduly cerebral and better suited to an audience that took itself more seriously than the readers of his other books, myself included.

I expected How to Read Literature to have a lot in common with his earlier book Literary Theory. Evidently, however, literary theory and literary appreciation or, if you prefer, literary criticism, have less in common than I had imagined. Literary Theory, apparently, has more to do with the nature of language, and literary criticism emphasizes aesthetic criteria that govern how language is used in producing novels, short stories, poems, and other fictional forms. Theory and criticism, nevertheless, certainly have a substantial conceptual overlap.

How to Read Literature, thus, may generate minor but annoying confusion as to the very nature of literature as a distinct creative activity. For example, in Literary Theory Eagleton made much of the once prevailing admonition that "a poem should not mean but be.
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