Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Terry Eagleton – How to Read Literature [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0300190964″ locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41G3ErAjqaL._SL110_.jpg” width=”72″]Page 2: Terry Eagleton – How to Read Literature

This sort of freedom guided by context is central to Eagleton’s perspective on interpretation in How to Read Literature, which will prove helpful to anyone who has ever wondered about the limits of plausible readings of a given text. How to read Literature is worth reading if for no other reason than Eagleton’s extended exploration of the well-known Baa baa black sheep. While hilarious and over the top in his assertions as to what this children’s poem might mean beneath the surface, Eagleton uses the poem to illustrate the nuances of the improbable versus the impossible, the importance of understanding genre, and the limits of rules and conventions. Again, he comes home to the idea that words and ideas are bound together. Furthermore, “To doubt whether an author can be fully in command of his or her meanings is not to suggest that literary works can mean anything you like” (138). One must show the relation between the text and one’s own account of it. In this humorous exercise Eagleton teases out the differences between having multiple possible and even probable readings of a given text, and putting forth readings that, while not impossible, and at the very least improbable.



Eagleton closes with a discussion of value in literature, noting that “Criteria are guides for how to go about making value judgements. They do not make them for you” (189). As in a game of chess, one doesn’t win simply by knowing the rules, but “by the creative application of such rules ” (190). So it is that knowing the rules of grammar does not translate automatically into the ability to create art with the written word.


In this final chapter Eagleton picks apart different passages from well-known novels, in some case admiring them and in other cases criticizing sharply. On questions of value he seems both stubborn and fluid, at the same time. It is fitting, then, that he ends with a passage from Scottish Poet William McGonagall, “by common consent one of the most atrocious writers ever to set pen to paper” (205). After soundly critiquing McGonagall’s work, however, Terry Eagleton wonders about some other community, with difference resonances, difference conventions, and asks, “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?” Improbable, perhaps, but not impossible.


Meghan Florian is a writer, scholar, and nonprofit communications guru.  She blogs at http://www.femmonite.com/

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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