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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts

John Sutherland’s How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts is a reader-friendly summation of literary theory that few avid readers will be able to resist. Each of Sutherland’s concepts is presented in a concise, four-page essay formatted to highlight its main points for the quick reference of readers wanting to review or reinforce their understanding of specific points. Each essay, for instance, opens with a summary/introductory paragraph in bold print and includes a timeline of key dates pertaining to the concept being discussed. Each piece also includes a “boxed” story about, or example of, its subject concept and ends with a clever “condensed idea” summation of its four-pages. As I grew more and more intrigued by Sutherland’s ability to summarize four pages of complex thought into just a handful of words, the “condensed ideas” soon became my favorite part of the essays.

The “condensed ideas” are particularly helpful when trying to recall the meaning of some of the book’s vaguer literary terminology, but even the explanations for more commonly understood terms can be fun. Examples include:

Hermeneutics – “Reading literature and understanding literature are two different things.”
Intentionalism – “What a work of literature means is not always what the author means it to mean.”
Translation – “It’s impossible – but what option do we have?”
Irony – “The camera may never lie. Literature does. And cleverly.”
As the book moves from literature’s origins toward its future, the essays are presented in six distinct sections: “Some Basics;” “Machinery: How It Works;” “Literature’s Devices;” “New Ideas;” “Word Crimes;” and “Literary Futures.” Considering how rapidly everything associated with publishing is changing today, readers will find the “Word Crimes” and “Literary Futures” sections of the book to be particularly interesting.

“Word Crimes” focuses on things like plagiarism, libel, literary lies and ghost-writers. Sutherland is particularly hard (deservedly so) on Herman Rosenblat who, in 2008, published a completely fictitious account of his Holocaust experiences, in effect, placing the authenticity of other Holocaust memoirs in greater doubt for those already disinclined to believe them. Sutherland, in this section, also addresses subjects such as the Tom Clancy and James Patterson “factories” that continue to top the best seller lists despite minimal contributions from the two writers, and the allegation that Dick Francis wrote none of his own novels.

How Literature Works finishes, appropriately, with essays on “The e-Book” and “Literary Inundation” (part of the “Literary Futures” section). As Sutherland emphasizes, today’s reader is faced with more choice than ever before in the history of the world. But that is not necessarily a good thing. As he puts it, “We are faced with the paradox that our ignorance (with the mass of books necessarily unread by us) is growing faster than our knowledge…not a new problem, but the scale of it is terrifyingly new.”

Perhaps it is time for readers to reflect for a moment on the nature of literature itself, precisely what it is that draws them to the printed page every day of their lives. They, and all future readers, because of the sheer volume of new material available to choose from, will find it more difficult than ever before to make wise choices about what they read. Books like How Literature Works will help them make those choices.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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