How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton

In Terry Eagleton’s slim volume How to Read Literature (Yale University Press, 2013), the author approaches literature like an old friend. His volume is easily readable and quite fun. Rather than didactically explaining how to read literature, he writes with familiarity about different ways one could look at literature. There is no lecture in this volume. There are, however, lots of ideas and inspirations from classic and modern works that Mr Eagleton himself obviously loves. Continue Reading

Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (Ballantine Books, 2005) has the attractive subtitle of “Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading.” Given my love of reading classic and quality literature to my son, this sounded like it would be a perfect fit for me.

Once I began reading, however, I found that the Goldstone’s focus was on discussing children’s literature in a parent-child book group setting. Although I did enjoy reading their thoughts about the deeper meanings behind various classic children’s novels, stories, and poems, I was a bit disappointed in the book overall. I had hoped for something to inspire parents in reading to their children. Deconstructing Penguins did that to some extent. But at the same time it seemed to talk to the most unintelligent of parents. I would hope that most parents reading their children Mr. Popper’s Penguins are wise enough to know that it is more than just a story about penguins! Do parents and children really need a formal reading group to discuss the issues such classic novels address?

Maybe my bias is due to the fact that I did study literature in depth, searching for meanings and themes, as an English major. It seems obvious to me that as I read a classic children’s novel with my children (such as Charlotte’s Web, The Giver, or The Phantom Tollbooth) that I’d open a dialogue with my child about what the book is really about. On the other hand, my son is only four so I don’t yet do this very much: we read for the sake of enjoying a story. I don’t want to kill the love of literature and story.

All that said, discussing books in a group setting is a lot of fun. I am a part a book group and when I walk out of meetings I feel I better understand the books, besides the fact that it’s simply a lot of fun to talk about a book that I like. Deconstructing Penguins is a great book to help parents or teachers get a book group started for second to fifth graders. I loved how they assigned books to these young readers that may be considered by some as “too hard,” such as Animal Farm. The children appreciated the book and understood the deeper meanings. I’m a big believer in not dumbing down literature for kids.

In short, as a manual for leading a book group for upper elementary students, Deconstructing Penguins is an inspiring and helpful volume. For parents hoping to instill a love of learning in their young children, it may not be as helpful.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

I will not put Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (published 1851) on my favorite books list because it’s simply not a favorite novel (I shudder at each description of whale blubber).  And yet, I must give Moby-Dick a solid five stars out of five for the rich reading experience it provides. I simply loved reading it. Much as other great works in world literature, such as War and Peace and Hamlet or (maybe) even East of Eden, Moby Dick gives innovative depth and breadth to a majestic subject, creating a universal epic of good and evil in the guise of a novel about something that may otherwise seem insignificant.

Moby-Dick is about much more than a whaling ship’s voyage, the biology of a whale, or even an insane whale-ship captain’s revenge on a whale. Reading Moby-Dick is a cultural experience, and the novel itself is a marvel in the detail Melville provides to create a composite picture of the mid-nineteenth century America. In addition, despite the clear setting (it could not be the same story without the whale hunting and whale fact digressions), the story is a universal one: fate versus choice, good versus evil, sanity versus insanity, God versus man.Continue Reading

Fleas, Flies, and Friars: Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages by Nicholas Orme

Fleas, Flies, and Friars: Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages by Nicholas Orme (to be published March 2012, Cornell University Press) is something completely different from my normal reading, but I enjoyed it very much. It is part anthology of poetry that children learned and recited from 1200-1500 CE (translated from Middle English or Latin) and part a description (annotation) of how children lived and learned during those years.

At just over 100 pages, it is obviously just a brief glimpse into medieval children’s poetry and society. Yet, because the annotations are written with an informative but friendly tone, it was a pleasant read for me, a curious historian and admirer of poetry in general. Children in the Middle Ages learned standards of behavior from poetry, as well as experienced the to-be-expected pleasures of lullabies and nonsense rhymes. Poetic stories of Robin Hood were immensely popular, and poetic reminders of school learning (Latin grammar, for example) helped the young child study.

Although the volume is slim and I was not a reader familiar with the status or literature of children in the Middle Ages, I highly enjoyed it. In some respects, it reminded me how some things really haven’t changed. Given the songs I learned in elementary school for learning the parts of speech, the nonsense poetry ridiculing silly teachers, and the poetic stories I still read in picture books, I’m simply pleased poetry has continued to define childhood and that there is a lot more of it to enjoy!

Read as a digital review copy from the publisher via netgalley.