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A Little History of Literature

A Little History of Literature

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by John Sutherland

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This 'little history' takes on a very big subject: the glorious span of literature from Greek myth to graphic novels, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Harry Potter. John Sutherland is perfectly suited to the task. He has researched, taught, and written on virtually every area of literature, and his infectious passion for books and reading has


This 'little history' takes on a very big subject: the glorious span of literature from Greek myth to graphic novels, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Harry Potter. John Sutherland is perfectly suited to the task. He has researched, taught, and written on virtually every area of literature, and his infectious passion for books and reading has defined his own life. Now he guides young readers and the grown-ups in their lives on an entertaining journey 'through the wardrobe' to a greater awareness of how literature from across the world can transport us and help us to make sense of what it means to be human.
Sutherland introduces great classics in his own irresistible way, enlivening his offerings with humor as well as learning: Beowulf, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, the Romantics, Dickens, Moby Dick, The Waste Land, Woolf, 1984, and dozens of others. He adds to these a less-expected, personal selection of authors and works, including literature usually considered well below 'serious attention' - from the rude jests of Anglo-Saxon runes to The Da Vinci Code. With masterful digressions into various themes - censorship, narrative tricks, self-publishing, taste, creativity, and madness - Sutherland demonstrates the full depth and intrigue of reading. For younger readers, he offers a proper introduction to literature, promising to interest as much as instruct. For more experienced readers, he promises just the same.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Regina Marler
…an entertaining sprint through Western, mostly English, literature…Gaps in one's reading can be usefully patched with this little book…

Visit the Little History website.


Visit the Little History website.

Independent on Sunday - Lesley McDowell

‘I suspect that an expert like John Sutherland could have written this highly entertaining and informative history without recourse to any research at all, having it pretty much at his fingertips; and it reads extremely well, as though he is simply having a chat with us about literature and why it matters.’—Lesley McDowell, Independent on Sunday
Shelf Awareness

“This slim book makes for a necessarily cursory review of literature’s greats – and the loving treatment by an expert . . . will please both novices and established readers looking to dip back into well-loved works.”—Shelf Awareness
Jay Parini

Praise for John Sutherland:
'John Sutherland is among the handful of critics whose every book I must have. He's sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, with a generous heart and a wise head.'—Jay Parini
New Statesman - Frances Wilson

'A Little History of Literature, which begins with Beowulf and ends with bestsellers, is primarily a guide for teenagers, and John Sutherland brings to the vast and unruly subject some order, clarity and commonsense.'—Frances Wilson, New Statesman
Spectator - Sam Leith
'As a guidebook, it's a cracker. What Sutherland has to offer is formidable breadth of reading, a generous spirit and a rebounding enthusiasm for his subject.'—Sam Leith, Spectator

Times Literary Supplement - John Vukmirovich

'Written in prose that is clear and free from the diktat of theory and criticism, A Little History of Literature is an enjoyable account of a lifelong involvement with literature.'—John Vukmirovich, Times Literary Supplement
Kirkus Reviews
A genial, enthusiastic guide leads a jaunt through literary history. As part of the publisher's Little History series, Sutherland (Emeritus, Modern English Literature/University College London; Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, 2012, etc.) distills into 40 chapters the big subject of world literature, from its beginnings in myth to its myriad current forms as e-books, graphic novels and interactive websites. Encouraging his audience to become readers and re-readers, Sutherland believes that a children's classic such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe--no less impressive than T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land or Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children--"helps make sense of the infinitely perplexing situations in which we find ourselves as human beings." Many chapters focus on particular authors, mostly canonical favorites: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Defoe, Austen, Dickens, etc. Sutherland groups 20th-century writers by theme: Kafka, Camus, Beckett and Pinter, for example, comprise "Absurd Existences"; Lowell, Plath, Larkin and Hughes represent "The Poetry of Breakdown." Sutherland's deftness is impressive. In a mere five pages, for example, he explicates unconventional narratives, from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy to works by J.G. Ballard, Bret Easton Ellis, Julian Barnes, John Fowles, Italo Calvino, Paul Auster, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme and B.S. Johnson, whose novel The Unfortunates "was published as a boxed set of pages which the reader can put together in any order they please." Sutherland is confident in his assessment of great works, but he is open to the idea that "pearls" can be found among what some people call "the crud" of popular commercial fiction. His aim is not to draw a line between high art and low, but to share his prodigious joy of reading. A lively, informative book in which the author shows how literature "enriches life in ways that nothing else quite can."

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Yale University Press
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A LITTLE HISTORY of Literature

By John Sutherland, Sarah Young


Copyright © 2013 John Sutherland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18685-7


What is Literature?

Imagine that, like Robinson Crusoe, you are marooned for the rest of your days on a desert island. What one book would you most want to have with you? That is a question asked on one of the longest-running and most-loved programmes on BBC radio, Desert Island Discs. Broadcast also on the BBC's World Service, it is listened to across the globe.

The question is one of two that are put to that week's guest, after we have heard snatches of the eight pieces of music they would take to the island. The castaway is allowed one luxury – what will it be? Answers are usually very ingenious: at least a couple of guests have chosen cyanide pills, for instance, and another chose the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Then they are asked which book they would like, in addition to the Bible (or any other equivalent religious volume) and the works of Shakespeare, which are already on the island – presumably left by the previous occupant, who chose the pill.

I've listened to the programme for fifty years now (it's been running since 1942) and much more often than not, the guest chooses a great work of literature to keep them company for the rest of their lonely lives. In recent years, Jane Austen, interestingly, has been the most popular author (more of her, and of Robinson Crusoe, later). And on virtually every one of the thousands of programmes aired, the chosen book has been a work of literature that the castaway has already read.

This points to some important truths about literature. First, obviously, that we regard it as one of the most important things in our lives. Secondly, that although we're said to 'consume' literature, unlike the food on our dinner plate it is still there after we have consumed it. And, in most cases, it's just as appetising as it was the first time round. My own choice, when on the programme some years ago, was a novel, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which (since I'd spent years editing and writing about it) I must have read at least a hundred times. Yet still, like my favourite music, it gives me pleasure whenever I revisit it.

Re-reading is one of the great pleasures that literature offers us. The great works of literature are inexhaustible – that is one of the things that makes them great. However often you go back to them, they will always have something new to offer.

What you are holding is, as the title says, a 'little history', but literature is not a little thing. There is hugely more of it than any of us will read in a lifetime. At best what we can put together is an intelligent sample, and the most important decision to make is how to assemble our selection. This little history is not a manual ('Read this!') but advice, along the lines of, 'You may find this valuable, because many others have, but, at the end of the day, you must decide for yourself'.

For most thoughtful people, literature will play a big part in their lives. We learn a lot of things at home, at school, from friends, and from the mouths of people wiser and cleverer than ourselves. But many of the most valuable things we know come from the literature we have read. If we read well, we find ourselves in a conversational relationship with the most creative minds of our own time and of the past. Time spent reading literature is always time well spent. Let no one tell you otherwise.

What, then, is literature? It's a tricky question. The most satisfactory answer is found by looking at literature itself; most conveniently at the very first printed works we come into contact with over the course of our lives – 'Children's Literature' (written, one should note, for children, not by them). Most of us take those first faltering steps into the world of reading in the bedroom. (We learn to write, most of us, in the classroom.) Someone we love reads to us, or with us, in bed. So begins the lifelong journey through all those pages that lie ahead.

As we grow up, the practice of reading for pleasure – which typically means reading literature – stays with us. Many of us will go through life taking a novel to bed with us. (Or we may listen to Book at Bedtime, another long-running BBC radio programme.) How many of us, in our youngest days, will have naughtily gone on reading by torchlight under the bedclothes in our pyjamas? The garments (our 'armour', in a sense) which we put on to face the outside world – the 'real world' – are more often than not tucked away across the bedroom inside a wardrobe.

Thanks to the numerous TV, film and stage adaptations of the book, many children and adults know the story of the four young Pevensies who find themselves evacuated to a house in the country. It is wartime in 1940s Britain. Under the care of kindly Professor Kirke (the word 'kirk' means 'church' in the Scots language: literature is always bringing in these little symbolic elements), they are safe from the nighttime raids of the London Blitz. The real world has become very dangerous for children; mysterious aircraft, for reasons not fully understood, are trying to kill people. Explaining to young children the politics, or the history, or the point of it all would be difficult. Literature, with its ability to communicate to all ages, can help.

In the story, while exploring the Kirke mansion one rainy day, the children discover an upstairs room with a large wardrobe. The youngest, Lucy, ventures into the wardrobe by herself. I suspect everyone knows what she discovers inside, from whatever version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe they remember. Lucy finds herself in what could be called an 'alternative universe' – a universe of the imagination; but as real, essentially, as the London she left. And quite as violent as that burning city. Narnia is not a safe place, any more than lions or witches are generally safe for human beings to hang out with.

As it's narrated, Narnia is not Lucy's dream, something inside her head, a 'fantasy'; it is actually there, as much a thing outside her wakeful self as the wooden wardrobe, or the looking-glass through which Alice goes into Wonderland, in Lewis Carroll's children's story published eighty-five years earlier. But to understand how Narnia can be both real and imaginary, we need to know how to process literature's complex machinery. (Children pick up the knowledge as quickly and intuitively as, in their earliest years, they pick up the complex machinery of language.)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an 'allegory' – that is to say, it pictures something in terms of something else; it depicts something very real in terms of something wholly unreal. Even if the universe expands for ever, as astronomers nowadays tell us it might, there will never be a Narnia in it. That world is a fiction; and its inhabitants (even Lucy) are mere figments (fictional inventions, that is) of the creative imagination of the author C.S. Lewis. But nonetheless we feel (and Lewis certainly meant his reader to feel) that a solid core of truth is contained in Narnia's manifest untruths.

Ultimately, then, we could say that the purpose of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is theological, a matter of religion. (Lewis was, in fact, a theologian as well as a story-teller.) The story makes sense of the human condition in terms of what the author suggests are larger truths. Every work of literature, however humble, is at some level asking: 'What's it all about? Why are we here?' Philosophers and ministers of religion and scientists answer those questions in their own ways. In literature it is 'imagination' that grapples with those basic questions.

That early bedtime reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe transports us through the wardrobe (and the printed page) to a greater awareness of where and what we are. It helps make sense of the infinitely perplexing situations in which we find ourselves as human beings. And, as an added bonus, it does so in ways that please us and make us want to read more. Just as the Narnia stories helped explain the world to us, as children, so our adult reading connects us to other adult lives. Re-reading Emma, or a Dickens novel, in middle age, we are surprised and delighted to find much more in it than when we read it at school. A great work of literature continues giving at whatever point in life you read it, and from whatever sources it comes from. In the following chapters we'll see again and again how privileged we are to live in a golden age when, thanks to modern translation services, not just 'literature' but 'world literature' is available to us to read. Many of the great writers who appear in the following pages would be green with envy at the abundance and availability we enjoy today. So although we'll look at literature from far and wide, the kaleidoscope you'll encounter in this book has one thing in common: you're now able to read it all in English (and I hope, one day, you will).

There have been those, from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato onwards, who believe that the charms of literature and its spinoff forms (theatre, epic and lyric in Plato's day) are dangerous – particularly for the young. Literature distracts us from the real business of living. It traffics in falsehoods – beautiful falsehoods, it is true, but for that reason all the more dangerous. The emotions inspired by great literature, if you agree with Plato, cloud clear thinking. How can you think seriously about the problems of educating children if your eyes are bleary with tears after reading Dickens's description of the death of angelic Little Nell? And without clear thinking, Plato believed, society was in peril. Give that child Euclid's Geometry to read in bed at night, not Aesop's animal fable about Androcles and the Lion. But, of course, neither life nor human beings are like that. Aesop's fables had already been teaching Plato's contemporaries important lessons – and delighting them, into the bargain – for two hundred years, and two and a half millennia later they do the same for us today.

How best, then, to describe literature? At its basic level, it is a collection of unique combinations of twenty-six small black marks on a white surface – 'letters', in other words, since the word 'literature' means things made of letters. Those combinations are more magical than anything a conjuror can pull out of his top hat. Yet a better answer would be that literature is the human mind at the very height of its ability to express and interpret the world around us. Literature, at its best, does not simplify, but it enlarges our minds and sensibilities to the point where we can better handle complexity – even if, as is often the case, we don't entirely agree with what we are reading. Why read literature? Because it enriches life in ways that nothing else quite can. It makes us more human. And the better we learn to read it, the better it will do that.


Fabulous Beginnings Myth

Long before we began to think of literature as something written down and printed, there was something which – on the principle 'If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck' – we could still call literature. Anthropologists, who study humankind from the ancient past to the present day, call it 'myth'. It originates in societies which 'tell' their literature, rather than writing it. The awkward and contradictory term 'oral literature' (that is, 'spoken literature') is often used. We don't have a better term.

The first point to make about myth is that it is not 'primitive'. In fact it is very complex. The second point is that, taking the long view, written and printed literature are relatively recent arrivals – but myth has been with us forever. It makes sense to suppose that as a species we are somehow wired, inside ourselves, to think mythically, just as linguists nowadays argue that we are genetically wired, at a certain period of our lives, for language. (How else, as toddlers, could we learn something as complex as the language we're hearing?) Myth-making is in our nature. It's part of who we are as human beings.

What this means in practice is that we instinctively make mental shapes, patterns, from everything that goes on around us. As babies, we are born, one philosopher said, into 'a great blooming, buzzing confusion'. Coming to terms with that frightening confusion is one of humankind's greatest enterprises. Myths have been a way of helping people make sense of our world. When we began to write, literature would do the same.

Here's an elegant little mind game, set up by the critic Frank Kermode, which demonstrates the point I'm making about being 'wired' to think mythically. If you put a wristwatch to your ear, you will hear tick-TOCK, tick-TOCK, tick-TOCK. 'Tock' will be stressed more than 'tick'. Our minds, receiving the signal from our ear, 'shape' the tick-tick into tick-TOCK – into, that is, a tiny beginning and a tiny ending. That, essentially, is what myth does. It creates a pattern where none existed, because finding a pattern helps us make sense of things. (It also helps us to remember them.) And what is most interesting in that little 'tick-TOCK' example is that no one teaches you to hear that narrative shape. It's natural to do so.

One way, then, of thinking about myth is that it makes sense out of the senselessness in which, as human beings, we all find ourselves. Why are we here, and what are we here 'for'? Typically, myth supplies an explanation through stories (the backbone of literature) and symbols (the essence of poetry). Let's try a mind game. Suppose you are one of the first people to try growing crops on the land, 10,000 years ago. You know there are periods when nothing grows. Nature dies. Then, after some time, the earth comes back to life. Why? What explanation can you come up with? There is no scientist around to explain it. But you have, somehow, to 'make sense' of it.

Seasonal rhythm is vital to agricultural communities – 'a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted', as the Bible puts it. Any farmer who doesn't know those 'times' will starve. The mysterious cycle of the earth's annual death and rebirth inspires 'fertility myths'. These myths are often dramatised in terms of kings or rulers who die only to be resurrected. It creates a reassuring sense that although things change, in a larger way they stay the same.

One of the oldest (and most beautiful) poems in English literature, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, opens, vividly, at the Christmas festivities in the court of King Arthur. It is the deadest time of year. A stranger, who is decked out in green from head to toe, bursts in on horseback. He imposes certain trials on those present, and gives them to understand that bad things will happen if the right things are not done. He is a version of the Green Man, the pagan god of vegetation: himself holding a holly bough, he represents the green shoots which (God willing) will sprout in spring. If, that is, mankind is watchful.

Let's explore that tiny beginning and ending of the tick-TOCK pattern, this time in a more literary example: the familiar and much-told myth of Hercules. Early versions of the story are found on decorated Greek vases, from around the sixth century bc. A recent version can be found in the Iron Man films. The legendary strong man of myth meets a giant, Antaeus, stronger than even he is, with whom he is obliged to fight. Hercules throws the giant to the ground. But every time Antaeus makes contact with the earth, he becomes stronger. Hercules finally wins by grabbing his opponent in a bear-hug and lifting him in the air. Uprooted, Antaeus withers and dies.

What is significant is that the story moves from beginning to end very satisfactorily (as do all the 'labours' of Hercules). It has a plot: there is an opening situation (the hero, Hercules, meets a giant, Antaeus), a complication (Hercules fights Antaeus, and is losing), and a resolution (Hercules realises how to beat his opponent, and wins). The fight in which the hero has to outsmart his much stronger opponent, as Hercules outsmarts Antaeus, will be familiar to every lover of James Bond films. The myth, like every Bond film, has a 'happy ending'. In simple and complicated ways, we find that kind of 'plotting' everywhere in narrative literature.

Excerpted from A LITTLE HISTORY of Literature by John Sutherland, Sarah Young. Copyright © 2013 John Sutherland. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Sutherland, Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature, University College London, has taught students at every level and is the author or editor of more than 20 books. He lives in London.

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A Little History of Literature 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
steveiewoolf More than 1 year ago
John Sutherland, author of A Little History of Literature, takes us by the hand and leads us safely through the deep, heavily wooded forest that is the written word.  As the author states in his introduction to the book, “…literature is not a little thing. There is hugely more of it than any of us will read in a lifetime.” Thankfully the author utilises a path constructed of wonderful books that make the journey a very pleasant affair.  During the author’s journey we encounter the likes of Homer, Chaucer, the Metaphysical Poets, Dr. Johnson, Jane Austen, the Romantic Poets, Kipling, Woolf and many others. John Sutherland finds the time to stop and tell us stories about Theatre in the Street, Who ‘owns’ literature, The King James Bible and Literature and the censor. It may be ‘a little history’ but the book is 284 pages long.  As with any book that crams a long history of any subject, and particularly literature, into relatively few pages there will be many people debating as to who should have been included within the author’s pages. Personally, I believe the omission of the poet Stevie Smith when discussing the the ‘voice of pain’ as an oversight. Ted Hughes believed that at the bottom of the inner most spirit of poetry is a ‘voice of pain’. Included in this discussion is the poets John Berryman, Anne Sexton. Both of these poets committed suicide and in their poetry they ‘signalled the act’. Stevie Smith is also a member of the suicide club that is very peculiar to poets. Personally, I believe her poetry is head and shoulders above that of John Berrymans and at least on a par with that of Anne Sexton.  I could take umbrage with Mr Sutherland over his decision not to mention or acknowledge the likes of Evelyn Waugh and E.E. Cummings. However, it would be small minded and churlish to dislike a book of this kind for not mentioning some of my favourite writers. John Sutherland’s, if I can borrow a film metaphor, cutting room floor will be covered in the blood of writers who had to be chopped from the book due to lack of space and time. John Sutherland has written this book in his own inimitable style; witty, erudite and unpatronizing. Like so many of John Sutherland’s other books, ‘Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives’ and ‘Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers’ to name but a few, he manages to write in an informative, adroit, compelling manner that never becomes tedious or pedagogic in style.  I will leave the last word to the author: “This little history is not a manual but advice along the lines of, you may find this valuable, because many others have, but at the end of the day you must decide for yourself.”