:: Article

How Not to Read Literature

By Alex Estes.

Terry Eagleton, How to Read Literature, Yale University Press, 2013.

If we take the old saying “youth is wasted on the young,” and trade the word youth for college it would be just as true, if not truer. Asking eighteen and nineteen year olds to take what the world of knowledge has to offer and treat it with the reverence it deserves seems a bit foolish. No wonder then that the bookstores are crammed with “guides,” both idiot’s and otherwise, to any number of subjects for those who, a bit older and a bit more mature, want to dig into something deeply and are looking for a place to begin. One of the most understandably popular of these is the “how-to read” genre. Many people, later in life, decide they want to get more out of reading than what Dean Koontz and Danielle Steele have to offer. Luckily for them, there are plenty of books to help. Unluckily, these books have many problems.

The how-to-read guide in print longest, Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book, is crammed with so many rules that by the end of reading it, you might find yourself, like Alan Jacob’s son does in a story he tells at the beginning of his book on reading, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction: “never want[ing] to read a book again.” And who could blame you or him? Adler sucks the human aspects of reading out of the experience, replacing it with a mechanical, almost engineered, approach to the pleasure that has, by book’s end, most certainly become a task. For instance, the section devoted to “pre-reading” outlines a six-step process in “the first sub-level of inspectional reading,” which is the second level in the four levels of reading as a whole (still with me?). In it, the reader is asked to pay close attention to the book’s table of contents, which Adler points out “many authors spend a considerable amount of time in creating,” and, he adds, is often sadly overlooked. So take your time here, Adler urges, but no longer than an hour.

Those who think spending an hour with a book’s TOC is a waste of time and who also don’t mind hearing, for a few hundred pages, about the importance Shakespeare has had on every piece of literature that one might deign to read, could pick up Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, where Bloom has allowed his deep love for the Bard to impinge upon his discussion of reading, which is what, at least he said, he set out to discuss. At one point, early on, Bloom takes his passion for Shakespeare a bit overboard when, after mentioning the anonymously written poem “Tom O’Bedlam,” he admits he wishes he could “ascribe it to Shakespeare, simply upon merit!”

In one of the most popular of the how-to guides, How To Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster does a rather good job at introducing the ideas and practices of deep reading to a general audience. The book would be recommendable were it not for Foster’s overly-folksy tone at times and his downplaying of poetic form (he has an entire chapter devoted to the sonnet wherein, strangely, he tells the reader it is the only form of poetry one needs to be able to recognize).

The problem, I think, is that upon closer examination, none of these books is exactly a “how-to” guide: each bears a deceptive name. Mortimer’s How To Read A Book ought to be called How To Dissect a Book To Within an Inch of Its Life. Bloom’s should certainly be called What (Rather Than How) To Read and Why. A more fitting title for Foster’s would be How to Read Literature the Way Non-Professors Think Professors Read Literature. But of course, none of these titles “sell.”

Now, Terry Eagleton, the literary theorist and critic, has decided to toss his thinking-cap into the “how-to read” ring and offers this genre yet another disappointment. Eagleton’s addition is titled How to Read Literature, and it, like all the others, has been misnomered. So what then should Eagleton have called his book? One problem, actually, is that the appropriate title seems to change as the book moves forward. The first third feels a lot like How To Read Literature Like Terry Eagleton. The second third begins to feel like How Terry Eagleton Reads Literature. But by the end, the reader will find the most apt title for the entire work to be Terry Eagleton Talks About a Bunch of Books He Once Read.

Those who have read Terry Eagleton’s last how-to book, How To Read a Poem, which is quite good comparatively, will realize from the first sentence of the new book just what type of lazy writing the reader is up against. Compare the second sentence of How To Read a Poem to the first sentence of How To Read Literature:

“Like thatching or clog dancing, literary criticism seems to be a dying art.”
“Like clog dancing, the art of analysing literature is almost dead on its feet.”

Is there not one other form of art struggling to survive? Is clog dancing the only such one in danger of extinction? It seems a bit nit-picky to attack a small transgression of this sort, but this bit of laziness bespeaks many of the problems soon to be encountered.

One such problem is that Eagleton explains at the outset that his book is “mainly intended as a guide for beginners.” Pity the poor “beginner” who believes him. But before we get to the way in which Eagleton forgets he said he would educate the beginning reader in the hopes of giving them the skills necessary to get more out of one the greatest abilities humankind has, reading, I think it’s important to talk a bit about the way he’s structured his book and how often he fails at keeping with that structure.

The book opens in a way that does feel beginner-friendly. Eagleton writes up a short fictional dialogue between a group of students discussing Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. He explains how if a person did not know these people were discussing a novel it may sound as if they were talking about real people in real places doing real things. He then goes on to discuss the idea of reality and fiction, speaking about the dangers of confusing one with the other. He even brings up Prospero’s speech to the audience at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when the character tells those watching the play to applaud in order to break the illusion and set him free. His discussion of the play’s conclusion is all well and good except for one thing: it takes place in the chapter titled, perplexingly, Openings.

When he does get around to discussing openings in this chapter, he focuses on E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. He does a stand-up job explaining the many techniques Forster uses in order to achieve the effects the first paragraph has on its readers. One might even begin to trust Eagleton as a proper guide through what can be a rather messy experience of literary dissection for the first-timer. After providing the reader with Forster’s first paragraph in full (excerpting: something rarely done in Eagleton’s book, and one of its greatest downfalls), Eagleton explains what Forster is accomplishing and how he accomplishes it:

[Forster’s opening paragraph] sidles into its subject-matter sideways, rather than confronting it head-on. ‘The city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary, except for the Marabar Caves, and they are twenty miles off’ would be far too ungraceful. It would spoil the poise of the syntax, which is elegant in an unshowy kind of way. It is deftly managed and manipulated, but with quiet good manners refuses to rub this in one’s face. There is no suggestion of ‘fine writing’, or of what is sometimes called ‘purple’ (excessively ornate) prose. The author’s eye is too closely on the object for any such self-indulgence.

The chapter on openings maintains this level of guidance, providing the reader with helpful parentheticals, like the one above explaining purple prose. But in later chapters on, and titled, Character, Narrative, Interpretation, and Value, not only does Eagleton veer far from topic, but he begins to overload the reader with far too many paraphrased-examples while rarely offering them solid textual, excerpt-based evidence to back up his claims, and the idea of this book being a helpful introduction to the world of deep-reading begins to disintegrate.

In the chapter on character alone, Eagleton jumps between almost sixty different examples in thirty pages. During this jumping about, all the reader receives are these little notes about character meant to backup Eagleton’s claims. Like this one:

Fanny Price, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, is a dutiful, impeccably well-behaved young woman, and (so many readers of the novel have felt) not a little pallid. She is meek, passive and something of a pain.

It would be helpful if Eagleton could have provided an excerpt from Austen, maybe a paragraph or two where this is illustrated, something to show the beginning reader how these ideas are pulled from the text. Instead, he offers, a few sentences later, yet another character that the reader may or may not be familiar with as a way of reinforcing what he’s just said:

She is not, after all, an Emma Woodhouse, rich, attractive, high-ranking and thus able to do pretty well as she likes.

At this point, what seems to have happened in the book is that Eagleton has forgotten his main, stated goal, which is to show another, less experienced reader, how to read in a deeper way than he or she has before and, instead, has begun to use the book as an opportunity to play literary critic/theorist, spouting off opinions on over a hundred works of literature. The only way you can have this kind of dialogue with a reader, and it’s a kind I’ve had many times before, the kind where you rattle off books by the dozens to back up claims you’ve made, is if you know for a fact that the person you’re speaking with is also well-read. Having this type of conversation with someone who isn’t well-read would be fruitless and could be seen, if looked at from a slight distance, as pompous and condescending. This feeling is only strengthened when, after Eagleton discusses, for only a moment mind you, the difference between the realist novel and the modernist novel, he tells the reader, who may need an example to better grasp what he is explicating (rather laconicly and, therefore, rather poorly), to “Think, for example, of Beckett’s Malone Dies or Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.” It’s not that he’s not correct to use these two novels as examples of the solitary narrator. They are great examples. But it seems unclear why a “beginning reader” would have Malone Dies as a familiar reference.

The pace at which Eagleton piles on the references only quickens in the next chapter, titled Narrative. In four pages (yes, only four pages!) he manages to reference Ulysses, Gulliver’s Travels, Crime and Punishment, Death of a Salesman, A Passage to India, The Plough and the Stars, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Henderson the Rain King, The Footsteps at the Lock, Molloy, The Turn of the Screw, Wuthering Heights, Under Western Eyes, The Good Soldier, and Doctor Faustus. Four pages! The problem with not slowing down is that there is rarely anything for the reader to read, except references.

To explain better what I find so lazy about this, so unfair to the beginning reader, here is a paragraph from one of these four pages wherein I have placed my own parenthetical comments in italics:

There are unreliable narrators as well as omniscient ones. The governess who narrates Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is almost certainly insane. James is playing a devious game with the reader, providing us with enough grounds to credit the governess’s account while dropping sufficient sly hints to suggest that it is not to be trusted. (Here Eagleton could have easily provided a couple excerpts demonstrating what he means regarding these “sly hints.” Without an example, locating these hints in future reading will prove difficult.) We have seen already that Nelly Dean’s narrative in Wuthering Heights is not entirely dependable. (We haven’t actually seen this at all. Earlier in the book Eagleton says, “Wuthering Heights tells its story in a way that involves a variety of viewpoints. There is no ‘voice-over’ or single trustworthy narrator to guide the reader’s responses.” We were only told, not shown. It begins to feel like Eagleton doesn’t know the difference between show and tell.) Jane Eyre delivers a tale tinged with pride, resentment, envy, anxiety, aggression and self-interest. (Again, it would be very helpful to see some of these tinges, and not too difficult to show them to us, either.) Some of Joseph Conrad’s narrators draw attention to the limited nature of their own powers of interpretation. They may have only a fitful, confused sense of what is going on in the stories they tell. The narrator of Conrad’s Under Western Eyes is a case in point, as are the storytellers of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. (How many beginning readers have Under the Western Eyes, The Good Soldier, and Doctor Faustus as readied reference points? How many well-read readers do?)

This, of course, brings up what at first seems like a very good question: What can we expect the beginning reader to have read? What can we expect any reader to have read? The answer is nothing. And the question is irrelevant. The fact is that a book about reading, or a book setting out to teach anyone anything, shouldn’t expect the person to know anything in order for the writer of said book to do a halfway decent job. If Eagleton makes a claim, he should back it up. It’s as simple as that. And then no one has to guess what anyone else has read. But Eagleton’s lack of evidence to provide support for his claims, though a tell-tale sign of his laziness, is not the worst of his transgressions.

Atop the meandering nature of the book and the information overload of the pages, there sits an even more bothersome problem with Eagleton’s text: his broken attempts at humor. It’s not so much that Eagleton isn’t funny, though he isn’t; it’s that his humor has an edge to it that feels completely out of place in a book about reading. And this humor builds into a joke that, at the end of the book, acts as an almost complete dismissal of literature’s value.

At first though, the humor feels more like a nuisance. When speaking about openings, he uses the bible as an example and takes an opportunity to crack this joke:

The Creation was the first item on the divine agenda, before God went on to organise dreadful weather for the English and in a calamitous lapse of attention allowed Michael Jackson to slip into existence.

Did I miss a memo? When did Michael Jackson become an object of universal loathing? Who agrees that the world would be a better place without Billie Jean or Thriller or, for God’s sake, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough? But the bad humor grows more cutting. Talking about character building he brings up a comment made by Prince Andrew referring to the Prince’s own time being shot at during the Falklands War as being “very character-building.” Eagleton follows it up with, “Perhaps he would care to have his character built a little more often.”

He’s even willing to sacrifice a logical argument for the sake of making a small joke. When talking about how characters aren’t real, how they have no future beyond the pages of the book, he uses an example that completely undermines his own argument, saying, “Literary figures do not have futures, any more than incarcerated serial killers do.” If anyone in this world has a future, it’s a convicted serial killer sitting on death row. The appeal process takes years. They are fed and clothed and sheltered at no expense of their own. There is a medical staff on call were the prisoner to turn ill. And they aren’t subjected to the myriad ways in which we die by accident being that most of them are in rather predictable and controlled environments. (Of course, I am only speaking of serial killer incarceration, which is usually in a supermax, non-gen-pop environment. We all know how hazardous regular prison can be. But hopefully, you’ve gotten my point: serial killers most definitely have a future.)

When Eagleton brings his style of humor to its apotheosis, all these little jokes he made along the way begin to pulse with a strange negativity. Eagleton chooses to close his book on a note that feels, to those of us who value reading, to those of us who love reading as much as we love people, to those of us who love it more deeply than that, as a slap in the face. We have felt Eagleton grow closer and closer to his argument of the relative value of literature as his book advances, but he takes it a bit too far when, after offering up an incredibly abysmal poem by one of the worst poets in the history of literature, William McGonagall (famous, in fact, for his sheer ineptitude as a scribe), Eagleton says,

Yet a nagging question remains. Imagine some community, perhaps in the far-flung future, in which the English language was still in use, but its resonances and conventions, maybe because of some momentous historical transformation, were very different from the English of today. Perhaps phrases like ‘And can be seen from miles away’ would not sound particularly lame; rhymes like ‘Tay’, ‘railway’, ‘day’ and ‘away’ would not appear absurdly repetitive; and the flat literalism and rhythmical clumsiness of ‘With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array’ might come through as rather charming. If Samuel Johnson could complain about some of Shakespeare’s most inventive imagery, is it entirely out of the question that one day McGonagall might be hailed as a major poet?

No, Mr. Eagleton, it is not entirely out of the question. Based on the track record of the popularity of certain works of literature, there is a sliver of a chance that this could occur. Yet a few nagging questions remain for me: What’s your point? What does this have to do with reading exactly?

And more importantly, where is the love? Is reading not, at least on some level, a love affair with language, story, character, sentences, words, style, and form? Why read at all, if the value of literature is completely relative? The answer to that last question is that it is not. At least not “completely.” There are qualities that hold up over time. Just ask Archilochus.

It seems that there are two types of books on reading: those that miss the point almost entirely and those that capture the spirit of what it means to learn to read deeply. In the latter category there are a few, possibly only a couple. Of these, one of them is not even a book. Virginia Woolf’s essay, How Should One Read a Book?, accomplishes far more than Eagleton’s 200 pages at a mere 4,000 words. For those in search of something more recent and a bit longer, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, with its well-wrought sentencing, its well-thought-out use of the excerpt , and its touches of sentiment in regards to the experience of reading, is the kind of book that, once finished, will make you want to grab for the closest novel at hand and dive in. As for Eagleton’s book, it was Virginia Woolf who said it best in that aforementioned essay:

Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy; are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease? Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind.

And that’s the problem with this book: it’s a false book, a faked book, it’s a book Eagleton threw together and then threw to the world. Reading deserves more respect than this. Readers deserve more respect than this. Too bad we can’t throw the book back at him. Best we can do is throw it across the room, which I did, after forcing myself to read it a second time, just to make sure it was as bad as I thought. And it was. Though it did sail rather nicely through the air.

Alex Estes is a literary critic living in New York City. You can check out his website at deskofalex.com, or you can follow him on twitter @deskofalex, or you can do both.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 11th, 2013.