From the epic of Gilgamesh to Aristotle and Cicero, and from Shakespeare and the King James Bible to Wuthering Heights , War and Peace , The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Nobel-winning lyrics of Bob Dylan, the world of literature is an integral part of our lives. Great literature can shape and form thoughts and opinions as well as influence politics and predict the future. Reading can truly enrich our lives, but it can sometimes be daunting to get the most out of a great work of literature.
The Handy Literature Answer Book: Understand and Enjoy Meanings, Symbolism, and Signs in Great Works is an engaging, easy-to-read look at literature basics such as themes, symbols, context, and other literary devices. Different literary forms, including novels, poems, plays, short stories, memoirs, and literary nonfiction are analyzed. Hundreds of important stories and great works are used as illustrative examples. Learn about the five basic questions for any work of literature, including “What is the significance of a title?” “What is conflict?” “What is character development?” “What is point of view?” “How does a setting affect a story?” “What are the different schools of literary criticism?” and many more.
Bringing the most out of the reading experience, The Handy Literature Answer Book deciphers and analyzes stories, novels, and verses through insightful in-depth answers to nearly 400 common questions. You will also read about such fascinating tidbits as …
• What are the key components of literature?
• How is reading literature different from other kinds of reading?
• Why is artful reading so hard?
• What do poems do?
• How should a poem be read for its comparisonsmetaphors and similes?
• What, according to Poe, should be the method of the short story writer?
• How do you recognize the difference between story and plot in a short story?
• How can you recognize a symbol?
• What are the defining characteristics of the novel?
• How did the novel evolve from a popular literary entertainment to the modern novel?
• What is the difference between drama and theater?
• What is the best way to understand and appreciate Shakespearean drama?
• What approaches should you take in reading an essay?
• What are characteristics of a memoir?
This handy primer also includes a glossary of essential literary terms, a timeline, a helpful bibliography, and an extensive index, adding to its usefulness. Making reading more enriching, rewarding, and enjoyable, The Handy Literature Answer Book is a wonderful, eye-opening read!
About the Author
Daniel S. Burt, Ph.D. received his doctorate degree in English and American Literature from New York University. He has more than 30 years of experience teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in writing and literature at NYU, Wesleyan University, Trinity College, Northeastern, Wentworth Institute, and Cape Cod Community College. He served for almost a decade as a dean at Wesleyan University. Burt is the author of Understanding Literature, Next Thinking; Literary 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Novelists, Playwrights, and Poets of All Time; The Novel 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels of All Time ; and The Chronology of American Literature.
Read an Excerpt
How do you Read Artfully? A Checklist
Slow down your reading : Speed-reading great works of literature is a mistake! The goal should be not to finish a work of literature as soon as possible, but to slow down your reading so that you attend to what is being said. Think about taking a hike along an unfamiliar trail. You can push through and try to get to the end as quickly as possible, but you will miss the point of the hike: to notice and appreciate the scenery around you as you walk.
Reread : It has been said that the great works of literature cannot be read, they can only be reread! Reading a poem, play, story, novel, or essay a second time tends to open up the work and more fully display what it is about. A first reading of any literary work will provide an overview; subsequent readings allow you to examine it closely and see more about how it works and what it means.
Read critically : that is, thoughtfully and actively: Reading literature is not, as we have said, a passive activity in which you expect to have the key information delivered to you as directly as possible (as in everyday reading). Literature’s meanings are multiple and the questions it raises require your active pursuit of meaning. You need to function almost like a co-creator in a work of literature, actively attending to all the evidence you are present and formulating interpretations based on that evidence (more on this later).
Engage in a dialogue with the work: ask it questions : The very best way to be an artful reader of literature is to continually ask questions of the text: Why did the author provide this detail? Why did a character react this way? What would have resulted had this happened and not that? Asking questions like this forces you to engage with the work of literature at a deep level in which its significance becomes clearer.
Annotate : The best way to engage in the kind of dialogue suggested above is to read with a pen in your hand. By underlining and writing in the margins, you will slow your reading and pose the kinds of questions that will help you to understand a work of literature. You will also have identified key passages and issues to raise in discussions and to consider when writing about the work.
Summarize : Write a brief summary of each poem or story, the acts of a play, chapters of a novel. This serves as a useful way of keeping the work fresh in your mind and helps to convert your memory from short-term to long-term. Summaries are often the basis for any analysis or writing about literature, so get in the habit of writing summaries to aid your understanding of exactly what happened in a story, poem, novel, or play.
Ask critical questions : Beyond summarizing what happens in the literary work you are reading, consider other essential questions, such as, how does the literary form (poem, play, story, or novel) help determine what the work is and its methods. What about knowledge of the author? Does that help you to understand what is intended? How about the cultural context? Do you need to know something about the time in which the work was written, the historical era, the cultural values that are expressed here? Posing these kinds of questions can help in important ways with your understanding about a writer’s intentions and the effect the work of literature is intended to have.
What Are the Five Key Questions to Ask When Reading a Work of Literature?
Question 1: What is the title?
The title is sometimes the only explicit suggestion by the author what the work is about and what should focus the reader’s attention. Ask yourself: why this title and not some other? What does the title suggest in terms of what the focus and meaning of the work is? If the work is a novel, how do the chapter titles (if any) suggest what to expect next?
Question 2: Why does it start here?
Like the viewfinder in a camera that frames a picture, the beginning of a literary work reveals a great deal about the focus and purpose of the work. Ask yourself: why does the work start here and not some other place? What is important about the initial information that is given? About the initial situation? It has been said that there are only two plots in literature: setting off on a journey or the arrival of a stranger. In other words, literature often shows a status quo disrupted. Does this concept apply? Is there some routine, habit, condition that is challenged? How and why?
Question 3: What is the conflict?
Drama is conflict: the opposition of desires, goals, ambitions, and this is no less true in poetry and fiction as it is in drama. Find the conflict and find the significance of that conflict. What are the oppositions? Conflict can come between individuals and circumstances (nature, time, etc.), individuals with each other, and individuals with themselves. Isolate the explicit or implied conflict in the work to locate its dramatic center.
Question 4: How is the conflict resolved?
If conflict is the dramatic center of literary works, framing the tensions and movement in a work, how the conflict is resolved is crucial in determining significance. What happens in the confrontation? What change in the initial situation is evident? Does the central character (or speaker) come to a new or different insight, conclusion, or action? What does the resolution tell us about a revealed aspect of human nature or the human experience?
Question 5: Why does it end here?
Think of the conclusion of a work of literature as completing the frame of the viewfinder: what is revealed? Why end here and not some other place? What is resolved or left unresolved? Why? Compare how the work ends with how it began. What’s different; what’s the same? What has changed?
Table of Contents
World Literature Timeline
1. What is Literature and How to Read It
2. Why Read Literature & How NOT to Read It
4. Short Stories
5. The Novel
7. Literary Nonfiction
8. Critical Approaches to Literature
Appendix 1Glossary of Essential Literary Terms
Appendix 2Listing of Selected Essential Poems, Stories, Novels, and Dramas