Book Review: A Student’s Guide To Literature

A Student’s Guide To Literature, by R.V. Young

As someone who cares a great deal about literature and its place within self-education [1], this book was definitely a worthwhile look at literature.  Those who care about liberal arts education, perhaps unsurprisingly, have very strong opinions about literature and about what sorts of literature should be encouraged.  It is hard to know what students think about this.  I have read a great many books by choice and a great many because I was required to, and I got a lot more out of the books I chose to read–although not all of the “great books” I have read by choice were ones I considered great (Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov both included).  Likewise, there were great books I had to read that I still appreciated as great books even if they were read by necessity rather than choice.  It is perhaps true that this equivocal opinion of literature and its value and the ways in which it may best be encouraged is widely shared, but those who read this book would be expected to be willing to entertain its sound recommendations concerning literature to read, at least.

This guide to literature is a short one at less than 75 pages.  The author begins, quite sensibly, by pointing out the paradox that literature is fictional but is expected to say something real about life and humanity all the same.  We mistrust art with too heavy-handed an agenda but have always considered literature important in culture.  After this the author discusses at least some of the complexity of literature while giving within the text some obvious recommendations of great authors to be familiar with, like Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Bunyan, Pope, Johnson, Austen, Coleridge, Undset (a Norwegian author I must admit myself unfamiliar with), and T.S. Eliot.  This selection of books is therefore unapologetically a “great books” collection.  After this there is a detailed bibliographic essay that gives specific literature the author recommends, starting with the most important primary works of literature (many of which I have read and enjoyed), the critical and scholarly tradition starting with Plato and Aristotle and extending to Matthew Arnold and the incomparable G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, the postmodernist assault, which the author disagrees with but wishes people to be familiar with, and finally some responses to postmodernism, which it is also worthwhile to know (and wherever possible to contribute to).

In reflecting upon this book, I was especially pleased to see that not only did the author take literature seriously, but also took literary criticism seriously.  For we are all impoverished in mind and spirit if we start taking the word less seriously.  It is the seriousness with which we view the word that allows us to have a leg to stand on when it comes to reflecting upon the words of others.  Even those who purport to claim that there are no ultimate layers of meaning ultimately contradict themselves by relying on weighty books to argue their opinions as well as their trust in the ability of readers to understand and assent to their self-contradictory claims.  Fortunately, most of this book is focused on aspects of literature that are far more enjoyable–namely the reading of good poetry, drama, and prose, and good books about those subjects that seek to demonstrate its legitimacy and its proper scope.  Sometimes, as in the case with Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” we even see a critique of philosophers in literature, and that is as it should be.  Our writings and reading are part of a large conversation, and there is much to learn as well as much to say for us in that larger discussion.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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