Five books that provide an accessible short introduction to the study of English Literature, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
In a previous post, we offered our pick of ten great books about literature, some of the very best books we’ve read in the course of our research for this blog. Now, we’ve narrowed this down to a more specific topic: those books which serve as great short introductions to the study of English Literature. Whether you’re studying English at school or university, or you’re a fan of literature and would like to understand more about how novels and poems work, these five books are great guides to the subject – and they’re theory- and jargon-free, too. Click on the title of each book for more information about it.
Terry Eagleton, How to Read Literature. Eagleton is never less than an amusing and knowledgeable guide, and in this recent book he provides a breezy, clear, and incisive introduction to some of the key aspects of reading literary texts. It’s a general book that touches upon fiction, poetry, and drama, and concerns itself with five main themes: ‘openings’, ‘character’, ‘narrative’, ‘interpretation’, and ‘value’. The book is full of insightful close readings (the chapter on ‘openings’, for instance, considers the opening lines of a number of novels and poems) which are then linked to the broader context of the poem or novel being discussed. Eagleton can also be extremely funny, describing Milton’s God in Paradise Lost as someone ‘who speaks like a constipated civil servant’.
James Wood, How Fiction Works. Wood has been called the greatest living literary critic, whose reviews have appeared in the New Yorker and the London Review of Books, among many other places. In this short and gripping book, Wood offers a similar approach to Eagleton’s, in that he treats general aspects – character, plot, narrative, and the like – but with a slightly narrower (though still fairly broad!) focus on fiction. His examples come from everyone from Dostoevsky to John Updike, and Wood is a very helpful cicerone who will make you want to read novels more carefully, following his excellent lead. This is the single best guide to studying fiction that we’ve encountered – there’s a thought-provoking comment or insight on virtually every page.
John Sutherland, A Little History of Literature. Sutherland has written prolifically on many aspects of literature, and here he offers a brief history of literature from ancient times to the present day. In a series of short, chatty chapters, Sutherland outlines the defining movements, periods, and genres of literary history – the Romantics, the modernists, children’s literature, and so on – and throws in some very surprising and entertaining facts about the subjects he’s discussing. (For instance, who knew that one early reviewer of The Wind in the Willows gave the book a bad review because the novel is inaccurate concerning the hibernating activities of moles?)
Jonathan Bate, English Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). Bate is one of the leading living writers about Shakespeare (his The Genius of Shakespeare and Soul of the Age are both stunningly good page-turners) and this book sees him providing a very brief overview of English Literature as a subject and a field of study. For a rather short book it covers a fair bit of ground, though Bate spends less time dealing with the ‘how to read’ questions that Eagleton treats so well in his book. Nevertheless, one of the best introductions to the study of English literature out there, by a first-rate scholar.
John Peck and Martin Coyle, A Brief History of English Literature. This informative and succinct overview of the development of English literature also includes examples of how to read various works of literature in their contexts. It’s a very informative introduction and covers many of the main movements in English literature from its Anglo-Saxon beginnings (Beowulf and all that) through to post-9/11 fiction (the second edition, published in 2013, updates and improves upon the original 2002 edition). If you’re specifically after an introduction to the development of English literature (Sutherland’s is more general), then this is the best place to start.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Ernest J. Rowley (1902), British Library, via Wikimedia Commons.