The Books of My Numberless Dreams

My trusty Handbook

Posted on: February 28, 2007

A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature is the most clicked book I’ve featured in my sidebar. These readers have good instincts as I’m finding it to be very beneficial. Its virtue for me so far is in the authors’ systematic, informed and extensive exploration of topics to which I was introduced in a more limited form in sixth form. My teacher touched a bit on textual criticism in our classes on Shakespeare, and we did a bit of abab stuff on Blake but textual scholarship and metrical feet were never a topic on to themselves. I had an excellent English record but before now I would stutter self-consciously if anyone were to ask me to clearly say what was iambic pentameter. (Umm…five! Something about five! Five syllables? Five…rhythmic…syllable…things in a line? I know Shakespeare wrote in blank verse! What’s blank verse? Uhhhh…Marlowe was a papist!) I was thrilled, foolishly grinning into space as I mumbled “daDUM daDUM” and memorised what was a sicilian tercet.

It also clarified what theories were behind the critical tactics I learnt. How formalists preferred to examine imagery and metaphor, and why some critics ballyhooed the “historical and biographical” approach. I was most attracted to close readings; analysing works in their historical context was also quite helpful but I found the biographical stuff the least informative of all. The primary texts used in the book for study were Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown”and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”; for novels it was Huckleberry Finn and Frankenstein; and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (I’ve already read the Marvell, Shelley and Shakespeare, and I borrowed the Hawthorne and Walker. I’m completely uninterested in the Twain.) From the selection only Hawthorne’s life offered any significant insight to his texts. The rest offered a nice contrast or background to the authors’ works, I guess, but ignorance of their life wouldn’t have dulled the reading experience.

Anyway these categorisation of approaches and brief histories of their development really…illuminated, in some sense, why I read fiction the way that I do. In trying to figure out why I found any of this interesting, beyond the more fruitful reading experiences I expected to have in the future, I concluded that I want to know these things because my reading style and tastes were significantly developed in the classroom. I was drawn to classics, the idea of them, before I ever read my first one in class and I enjoyed the kind of work we were asked to do on them. To varying extents I’ve retained what I learnt and applied it to my readings that are now all done for pleasure. And, being out of the English classroom, I dreaded the possibility of devolving back into a simpler mode, where the best thing I could say about a novel was that it was really good and I related to the characters.

I am also really curious about the theories behind reading practices that are anathema to me. The ones where novels are nothing but ciphers for culture, or politics or morals. Or even learning why certain camps were so extreme and insisted this is way, the only way, to truly read literature. I’m also hoping to find at least one critical theory that makes absolutely no sense, you know, the ones that only a stereotypical, doped out professor, sickly white from lack of sun, tenured (of course!) and addle-brained could think of. If I don’t get at least one of those I will be severely disappointed.

I do not doubt that there are readers out there who do not need such knowledge to be excellent, engaged, readers with fresh or at least elegantly conveyed opinions. But I don’t think I’m one of them, or rather, I don’t want to find out if I am one of them because I am having too much fun doing it my way.

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6 Responses to "My trusty Handbook"

This sounds very interesting. I think even great readers can benefit from learning things about how other people read — theories of reading and literature and all that. I’ve had a pretty good exposure to literary theory and criticism, but I still think a good reference book would be handy.

Really good post–I can relate!

(note to self: learn some criticism)

Dorothy one of the best things I like about blogs like yours and litlove’s is that you both have an academic background and bring that to your posts in a very natural, accessible way.

Sylvia thanks! I thought you would, judging from your comment on Danielle’s blog when she asked about how others read.

I read books more as a historian than as someone who appreciates how they are written I’m afraid. I think that’s why I prefer older classics or books where I can emmerse myself in someone else’s culture, like sci fi, or detective stories which I’m pretty sure I read because I’m nosy about other people’s lives.

But it’s interesting that you’ve found that someone’s personal life doesn’t add much interest to your reading of the books.

*Sigh* In another life, had I time, literary theory sounds inyeresting.

Well, I have been eyeing this confection for a while…

Solnushka we all have our own approaches to reading, and most have their own merits, in my eyes. I am interested in history but I tend to not want much of it in my fiction unless it’s an inextricable element of the story. Or the author is a great stylist and brings it above mere description. How telling it is then, I suppose, that of the genres you named only the classics are a favourite. I do read Dashiell Hammett but emphatically for his prose and characters.

Sylvia ooOOOOooo, that sounds good! I can’t look at it for too long, I still have a few lit crit/philosophy books to wade through, but thanks for linking to it here.

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