Micro-Review: A Little History of Literature

Sutherland-A-Little-History-of-LiteratureA Little History of Literature
by John Sutherland
Yale University Press, 2013
275 pages (hardcover)
Source: personal library


“If we read well,” writes John Sutherland, “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.” A professor emeritus of modern English literature at University College London, Sutherland has spent a lifetime in conversation with the world’s creative minds. The value of his “little history” is in how he connects the dots of the great western works we’ve either read or meant to read, from Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from Pamela to Harry Potter. In short chapters that explore form and historical context, he explains the influence of great writers on later generations and focuses on how the works and their authors were received in their own day. Sutherland’s writing is occasionally pedantic (“the subject of this chapter is Samuel Johnson”) and some sections feel like a reincarnation of lecture notes. At his worst, he does an old-codger ramble describing e-books (“digital things made up of algorithms and pixels”) and search engines (“one of them aptly called ‘Jeeves,’ like the butler”), but at his best, he communicates a deep knowledge of literary history and an even deeper love of literature. While the cover-to-cover approach is a bit dry, it’s just the kind of volume you’ll want to spot-read to amend your knowledge gaps.

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