Book Reviews

Discover literature Eagleton style

sheepAnyone with more than a passing interest in studying literature will not get too far into the subject without encountering Terry Eagleton. Former professor of literature at Oxford university, currently at Lancaster University and Notre Dame, he’s the author of some forty books on literary theory and criticism.

So what is a man considered by many to be the UK’s most influential living literary critic and theorist, doing writing an extended analysis and interpretation of  the eighteenth century nursery rhyme Ba Ba Blacksheep in his latest book How to Read Literature?

Might there be some hitherto unknown political significance to this rhyme revealed by Eagleton’s Marxian view of literature? Or a social comment about racial tensions uncovered by a post colonial reinterpretation?  The simple answer is no. Eagleton’s analysis is far more entertaining than either of these approaches. In his analysis, the rhyme becomes a hilarious encounter between a rude man and a sheep with a chip on his shoulder when he (or maybe she) isn’t afforded the normal courtesy of being addressed by name.

LiteratureDeeply entertaining yes. But Professor Eagleton does have a more serious point to make — that literary works lend themselves to multiple interpretations with the ‘meaning’ depending on the reader’s own perspectives. Nor is the ‘meaning’ fixed in time and. Rather …….

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. They do not so much contain meaning as produce it.

In How to Read Literature, Eagleton shows how readers can get a deeper understanding of literary works by closely examining aspects such as tone, ambiguity, syntax as well as the formal aspects of character and narrative voice in  five sections  “Openings”, “Character”, “Narrative”, “Interpretation” and “Value”. He ranges far and wide across different texts, taking in poetry, drama as well as novels, providing insights into a large range of authors as diverse as Shakespeare, E M Forster and J K Rowling.

The introduction describes How to Read Literature as a text  for students new to the study of literature as well as people who want to deepen and enrich their reading experience. To fully appreciate it, does require a fair knowledge of different works of literature but Eagleton never gets so far into dissecting a particular text that you feel overwhelmed. It would be a great companion read to that other classic, David Lodge‘s Art of Fiction. 

About this book

My copy of How to Read Literature, published earlier this week , was provided by NetGalley.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

8 thoughts on “Discover literature Eagleton style

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  • I’m always interested in books on literary theory, they’re so good for mental exercise and bickering with! I’ll keep an eye out for this one 🙂

    • well this was one of the more entertaining ones certainly.

  • I usually stay away from books like this because they tend to be so “rules of reading” but this one actually sounds pretty good.

    • I know what you mean Stefanie. This one is quite refreshing. the title is misleading because it suggests almost a checklist approach – you know, ‘look for this’ ‘watch out for this’ But its a long way away from that approach.

  • Fascinating. I haven’t read either, but I think maybe it’s time to revisit “how to read,” and revisit how I read. I have a pretty good sense of tone, syntax, ambiguity — I love ambiguity- etc. I have two basic approaches I have used over the years. 1. What question does it ask me? I know that sounds vague but what I mean is — in my small conversation with the text, what pops up– what says why this, not that? 2. How do I feel as I read? I like this second question a lot lately.
    I don’t usually know the answers to these as I read or just after. A slow processor, I write about books to compose my thoughts. Writing is the place I go to think.

    • Seems to me that you don’t really need one of these books Barbara. You already have a good understanding of the basics and have found an approach that works for you. I like your questions – oh that I was as thoughtful a reader. I tend to just read and let the effect sink in rather than engage in an internal dialogue as I go. I was so intrigued by your approach that I tried it out this morning. Very interesting! Not sure I can do that if I’m reading late at night when the brain tends to be in suspended animation mode. But I could see it working on the rare occasions I have a chance to read in the day. Thank you!!!

      • Thank you for your compliment. Sinking in is exactly what happens for me. It’s when I write that I compose and let those unconscious thoughts and feeling work their way back to the surface. I am always impressed by your blog, your choices, your questions. You inspire me. I may just have to sign up for one of the challenges you are doing. You are having so much fun.


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