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Ink a Dinka Don’t

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How to Read Literature
Terry Eagleton
Yale, 2013

how-to-read-literatureWhen reviewing Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why back in 2000, Terry Eagleton scoffed at what he took to be Bloom’s creed of the self. At issue was Bloom’s forty-year-old theory of the anxiety of influence, that each great poet expends his (usually his) creative whole in an oedipal attempt to distort his master. This ultimately turns poetry into “a kind of Wall Street of the soul, full of pushy young brokers intent on sweeping the old guard into the gutter.” At the time of the review, as Bloom entered his seventh decade, his philosophy remained as individualistic as ever, but his thinking, to Eagleton’s mind, had grown fuzzier and his little book read like that of any other late-capitalist self-help guru, extolling the personal health benefits of literature. For Bloom, in his dotage, reading has been reduced to “a kind of confidence-boosting or spiritual muscle-building.”

Flip forward more than a decade and Terry Eagleton—in his seventies now, too—has written his own self-help book, How to Read Literature, a series of close readings grouped together under headings like “Openings,” “Narrative,” and “Value.” It’s perhaps an indication of how little Eagleton regards Bloom’s later work that he does not attempt to refute it by name (despite the echo in his title), though his contempt for Bloom’s egocentrism is everywhere. Bloom had averred that one ought to read “to strengthen the self” and to better find out “its authentic interests.” Eagleton is having none of it:

If we are inspired by literature that reflects our own interests, all reading becomes a form of narcissism. The point of turning to Rabelais or Aristophanes is as much to get outside our own heads as to delve more deeply into them. People who see themselves everywhere are a bore.

Presuming the word literature to be tacit in Bloom’s title, the only difference on the dust jackets of these two short books becomes that little word why. It’s a question Eagleton answers in a hundred asides but, tellingly, does not once ask. I labor the point because unlike Bloom’s book, How to Read Literature is clearly addressed to college students and their teachers. Speaking as a teacher, I can attest that why is one of the first questions that arises in any literature class.

Elsewhere Eagleton has spoken passionately of the need for a humanities-centered idea of what college is (as opposed to the mercantile trade schools that have largely replaced it). But here he avoids addressing the subject head-on, instead peppering the text with offhand justifications. Good literature promotes the imaginative faculties, yes, but it also promotes the critical faculties; it “returns human speech to its true abundance”; it reveals the secrets of its creators; it cultivates taste; it reminds us of how we are like others but also how we differ; it is both means and end.

Perhaps he has written about the why at length for the same audience in one of his 40-odd books, but here he restricts himself primarily to how, and it’s in the how that Eagleton has always shone. His close readings are miracles of perception and, aside from his own brand of armchair Marxism, a species of humanism; he pushes no grand theory, and certainly no continental one. If Eagleton has always been more of a synthesizer than an original thinker, this is often exactly what we want in a good teacher, particularly if we are beginners. Here—as in all of his popular criticism, such as his wonderful book Shakespeare and Society from 1967—he walks us through a garden of critical theories without ever resorting to jargon or obscurantism, barely even mentioning the schools by their names. There is genre theory in How to Read Literature, new criticism and intersubjectivity, etc., but those words themselves do not appear. This is corrective. Theory, as Eagleton sees it, should be a navigable passage to both the books we read and the world around us, not a labyrinth. He worries about what English departments have become (“a whole tradition of what Nietzsche called ‘slow reading’ is in danger of disappearing without a trace”) and aims to direct both student and teacher back toward productive complexity and away from easy answers.

Culled, presumably, from his direct experience with students, the book begins with a sample dialogue in which a chummy group of archetypal intro-to-lit students discuss the characters and goings-on in Wuthering Heights. They have more than a passing understanding of the plot; the characters seem real to them—they talk about Heathcliff and Catherine as though they’re actual-life friends who don’t happen to be in the room and so can be safely gossiped about. As Eagleton sees it, that’s exactly what’s wrong. At no point do the students discuss the work as a piece of literature, as something made from language. And on the rare occasions when students do speak of art, they do so to judge the author a failure for not having written according to 21st century norms.

I often hear students flogging a long-dead author for not making the people “real” or the situations “plausible” in the light of the moment. Eagleton patiently explains that:

Lifelikeness, however, is a ridiculously inadequate yardstick for measuring literary value. Shakespeare’s Cordelia, Milton’s Satan and Dickens’ Fagin are fascinating precisely because we are unlikely to encounter them in Walmart.

And on the question of language, the oft-heard “but people don’t really talk that way”:

Hamlet’s last words are ‘Absent thee from felicity awhile, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story … the rest is silence.” Steve Jobs’s last words were ‘Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow’. Some might feel that there has been a certain falling-off here. Literature is about the felt experience of language, not just the practical expression of it.

Teachers want their students to be opinionated, of course, and to express what they think about what they’re reading, because it helps the otherwise-disengaged to feel as though they have something at stake. But Eagleton, like all of us, can only take so much. “There comes a point,” he writes, “at which not recognizing that, say, a certain brand of malt whisky is of world-class quality means not understanding malt whisky.”

Does this mean Eagleton has grown reactionary with time, a Hitchens or an Orwell of theory? (Or, has he fallen, like Harold Bloom “to a level of critical banality which might even have embarrassed Quiller-Couch?”) No, he’s just become more pragmatic. He no more believes in a universal canon than would another passionate post-imperialist, but he does think that when you already are part of a given culture, it’s worth having a look around:

It is true that a Dinka might come to appreciate Jane Austen just as well as a Mancunian. To do so, however, he or she would need to learn the English language, gain some knowledge of the Western novel form, grasp something of the historical background against which Austen’s fiction makes sense, and so on. To understand a language is to understand a form of life.


othelloHow to Read Literature is clearly a book born of great frustration. I’ve often felt that certain of my students had a frame of reference closer to that of the Dinka than to that of a Mancunian like Eagleton. A basic knowledge of history is essential to all worthwhile reading; a close scrutiny of why the world looks and sounds the way it does from our particular vantage point, i.e. critical thinking, is at least as valuable as a close attention to language. And so frustration made the book, and patience made it pithy.

Were students of the past better prepared than today’s? How could we measure it? If they know relatively less maybe it’s because now there’s relatively more to know. So go the arguments. It’s always useful for me to remember that when I was in school I was the opposite of wise, and the level of work I demand from my own students now would have been impossible for me.

But this does nothing for the frustration I feel when separating out what can and can’t be taught in the time that is given to me to teach a class. If we say, as Eagleton does, authors like to “pull out all the stops” in their opening passages, do we need to pause and make sure the figure of speech is understood? How many of the students know what a church organ is? I recently taught an English class at an art school in Denver where, surprised by how few of the students were catching the Biblical references in Shakespeare, asked, “How many of you were raised Christian? All right, well how many of you were raised with any religion at all?” Very few hands. This is undoubtedly good news for them in psycho-sexual terms, but I couldn’t help (as one raised Catholic, as Eagleton was) wondering at how differently from my own their minds might be structured. If you’re teaching Othello, how much do you bang on about the Crusades? But first, shouldn’t you get into the differences between late-medieval Christianity and Ottoman Islam? Ought one to bring up Byzantium? Surely, the history of Venice must be addressed, and of Elizabethan English, and through all this backtracking we grow more distant from that moment when Roderigo and Iago will step onto a Venetian street and start to scheme.

In the face of an insurmountable problem that must, nonetheless, be surmounted, Eagleton does about as good a job as can be done of keeping up a steady pace, and only occasionally slowing down for the reader who needs it. (The man who teased Bloom for reminding his readers that “’irony broadly means saying one thing and meaning another” now finds himself noting mid-sentence that dystopia is “the opposite of utopia” and that “a catamite is a man’s boy lover”).

Students are walked through a series of précis and excerpts alongside a companion who keeps pointing out easter eggs, keeps us on our toes. When we come across a new passage Eagleton has placed in a vitrine (the first paragraph of Earthly Powers, or a bit from somewhere in the middle of Carol Shield’s The Republic of Love) we warm to the game. Which bit will Eagleton tease out? We try to match our wits against his. What could he be getting at by quoting Keats? Well this bit from the Odes is all about sound but what else might be hidden there? Perhaps disappointingly, Eagleton indeed talks about how it sounds. Lulled, we pay scant attention to the next selection and he wallops us for it. Will he dislike this Nabokov passage for the same reason he disliked the Faulkner? Because the lines “know nothing of tact and reticence?” He doesn’t! Nabokov saves himself by being “ironically self-aware,” unlike the “artful but lifeless” Updike, who took his thrashing only a few pages earlier. Hence: a working lesson on the formation of taste.

Any hard-line theorist would find this both too subjective and too objective, but it’s hard-liners Eagleton is trying to smother in the cradle here. “Reality does not divide neatly down the middle between objective and subjective,” he reminds us. “Meaning is not objective in the sense that municipal car parks are, but it is not just subjective either.” And so we learn how to read from a reader in the practice of close reading, comfortable with formlessness but not senselessness, open to new sources of stimulation, free of cant, and happy to revise his own opinions from previous books.

In the book’s tour-de-force, the “Narrative” chapter, we’re walked through a Marxist reading of Great Expectations (though, crucially for the biased student, the word ‘Marxist’ does not appear), and shown how the understory of the book might plausibly be put in strikingly different terms from anything we might have learned in high school, or anything Dickens himself might have endorsed. The English civilization of the novel “has its murky roots in crime, violence, labour, suffering, injustice, wretchedness and oppression.” Though Pip learns to value the responsible middle-class life, “it is hard to see how the civilization portrayed in the book could survive if it were to become conscious of its true foundation.”

Or would another reading suit us better? Might Great Expectations be the Bildungsroman it’s always been sold as, one that describes how “in order to be truly independent, you must acknowledge the unsavory sources from which your existence stems. Only by accepting that you have a history not of your own making can you be free.”

Both readings are equally worthy in that “literary works may best be seen not as texts with a fixed sense, but as matrices capable of generating a whole range of possible meanings.” And so they should.

How to Read Literature is light on its feet and right about what matters.It will undoubtedly be useful to students, provided their teachers have the time to pick up a copy, and provided Yale University Press is generous with desk copy requests. But I worry. A recent spate of articles has shone a glaring light on the very real problems of adjunct teachers in most of America’s colleges and universities. Paid considerably less than a living wage, increasingly forced to teach fewer and fewer classes (so as not to qualify for health care) commuting great distances from school to school – sometimes three schools in a single day – it is unlikely that most of the people teaching most of the introductory courses in English will be able to find the time to read How to Read Literature. The profession is increasingly impossible for all but the psychotically masochistic or those to the manor born.

As Eagleton produces a book a year these days, and has expressed real concern about the future of the university, perhaps this subject—the crisis of teachers, not teaching—will attract him as a champion. Addressing this crisis is an all-hands-on-deck moment, and Eagleton is exactly the kind of Marxist (one more concerned with the products of leisure then the production of capital) the moment demands.

John Cotter 
is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His writing on art and books has appeared in The Quarterly ConversationSculpture, and Bookforum.  His novel Under the Small Lights is available from Miami University Press.