A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

If you’re a reader but not an English major, or just anyone who’d like to fill in the holes in your knowledge of the subject, you could do worse than John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature.

 Divided into 40 short chapters, Mr. Sutherland’s book covers all the greatest hits from Beowulf to Borges and most of the main topics covered in graduate schools from What is Literature to Literature and Race. This is a book aiming to introduce readers to the topics covered, so you’ll get a solid grounding in each issue along with all the cannonical authors. If you’re looking for something more advanced, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Mr. Sutherland’s style is brief and breezy.  He never wades so far into any topic that he risks becoming lost in controversy or risks going over anyone’s head in analysis.  He’s like a very knowledgeable grandpa explaining carpentry to his grand children in terms they can understand.  He’s not talking down to his audience at all, he’s just showing us how to build a basic bird house, not how to construct a full set of dresser drawers.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Sutherland since graduate school when some professor recommended we all get a copy of his The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction.  It’s a must have if you’re a fan or a student of the genre.  In the years I’ve had it, nearly two decades now, it has never failed me. No matter how obscure the reference I come across, it’s in Sutherland’s book be it obscure household magazine or novelist lost to time.  They’re all there.

So I was primed to enjoy A Little History of Literature and enjoy it I did.  I can’t say that I learned anything new, but I had good time none-the-less.  Mr. Sutherland loves his topic, reads everything, references everything from children’s literature, to Ray Bradbury, to Dan Brown, to Mrs. Gaskell, to Mrs. Dalloway.  Though it probably should be titled A Little History of Literature in English he does cover a wide swath of the non-English speaking world enough to satisfy most, though not all, readers.

The end paper biography refers to The Lives of Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives which sounds like something I simply must have.

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9 Comments

  1. alison41 says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on this one; have added it to my Wish List on Book Depository. I am hanging on grimly to reach the critical date of 31 March (Bookish Vows & Promises, on my blog in early January – what was I thinking?) before I buy any new books. It’s been a struggle, let me tell you!

    1. I did that same challenge for many years, as you probably know. It was surprising how difficult it was. Just a few more days and you’re there. 😉

  2. BookerTalk says:

    I think this is the same John Sutherland that wrote a book on some of the mysteries in Shakespeare. Like how many children does lady macbeth have. Most entertaining

    1. Sounds like him. He’s very entertaining. I’ve seen so many productions that staged Lady MacBeth as pregnant in the fist act, then clearly no longer pregnant in her “mad” scene that I’ve come to think of it as written that way. But it’s really a mystery, isn’t it? I’m watching for more by John Sutherland in any case.

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    Yes, he wrote those mysteries ones, they’re great. I must look out for the authors’ lives ones. He has a knack of explaining things clearly yet not in a patronising way, as you’ve found.

    I’m currently reading a book published in the 1960s giving a survey of modern literature. Very interesting – so many obscure people in there we no longer remember!

  4. I feel like this book would have helped me fill in all the gaps I had going into my graduate program. Somehow, I managed to escape high school and undergrad without much in the way of COMPETENCE of literature before 1900. Survey courses, I argue, are an utter waste of time.

    1. Well, you can only get out of a class what you put into it. I took many survey classes that I loved.

      1. Or you can only get out of a class what a professor puts into it. If a survey class is structured badly, you’re simply zipping through 200 years of literature without gaining and significance.

  5. So one some survey classes are “an utter waste of time.”

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