“Once upon a time, a very long, long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.”
What you get contents-wise:
Once Upon a Time;
What it is;
When it Began;
The Study of English;
Periods and Movements;
Among the English Poets;
Shakespeare and Dramatic Literature;
Aspects of the English Novel;
The Englishness of English Literature?
Last year I read a book entitled: “Why Read?”. There are points of connection between the two books. Bate’s book is more specific, whereas Edmondson’s is more generic. Both give us a fine view of what it means to be a (compulsive/immersive) reader.
Does reading make me “smarter”? I’m not sure I can devise a method to measure my ability to understand the world as it-is or as it-should-be due to my deep immersion in Literature. I’m pretty certain because I started reading in English at a tender age, my ability to understand and be able to talk about English Literature is greater than my aptitude to discuss Portuguese Literature. I usually say I’m not really an example to anyone in this regard, because I neglected reading my own literature in my own mother-tongue at a very early age. I only read what I was compelled to read. When I got older, in college, that’s when I started reading (and discovering) Portuguese Literature. But English literature (or Literature in English if one feels so inclined because it has a wider scope) will always be my first love reading-wise. My English synapses were formed when I was very young, so there’s nothing to be done about it. I am who I am, accept me, reject me, but I'm still me. Later on I discovered German Literature. And nothing was ever the same…
Once I became more experienced in the ways of English, German and Portuguese literature, I knew it fell upon me to begin to light the way for future explorers. That’s why I got into GR, BL, LM, etc. I’ve written some “literary” works of my own, using words to illuminate my views on the truth about humanity, science, geekery, etc. Others may decide instead to act as teachers, helping prospective explorers learn to traverse the dense and sometimes bewildering forest of literature they will encounter along their journey. As the great authors of the past have marked out paths in the wilderness for we who have followed them, so we must serve as guides for those who will come after us. Great books (aka literature) provides us with a window into various aspects of the human condition and a guide to the way we relate to one another and to our cognitive approach to the world. Books give us a mirror in which to examine our collective reflection as people. It does not distort the errors of humanity, but exposes them quite openly. Only the truth is relevant. The world of books is the reflecting pool into which I can look and see both my own face and the faces of all my fellow humans. It enables me to not only find the humanity within my own heart, but also to connect me to the generations of other people who came before me. I like to read because I believe there is power in literature. The world of books is both intensely personal as well as a communal experience. Hence BL, LM, whatever. I love examining how words, sentences, characters, plot-lines and tropes reveal who we are as humans (close-reading). The human condition as Harold Bloom uses to say is a complicated thing, and requires an infinite amount of words, concepts, and imagery to describe and analyse. That's the joy of reading books, there is always a new reality to discover. Once I realized that I really loved to look at rhetorical devices, and the use of language, I started to see that, although it still was not science, it was art, and art is the greatest expression of that which makes us human. As I was writing this, I got to thinking about the importance of reading and writing and their differences, not only in terms of mechanical devices, but in terms of what it means to write, and I mean personally. The written word embodies an entire culture. Why? Because it “documents” the collective thoughts of everyone who cared to share them with the world. Hence, I believe that for me to truly be a part of human society, it’s critical that I take part in the “history” that is literature, even if only in the reading aspect (I’m not taking into consideration my own dabbling attempts at writing…). Writing carries a grave importance for those who are blessed with the ability to write, as literature simply would not exist in a form accessible to all, and for that reason I believe all who can write should. I take advantage of the great opportunity to be part of and contribute to the world and society in which I live through writing (at BL, LM, etc.). I see literature in the sense of an existing conjoint struggle to understand and make the best of the lives that we have all been given. Literature serves as a way to enrich my soul, and gives me a way to improve the world not only through the beauty of its existence but through the ideas and tangible possibilities it possesses.
After this bland speech, what remains to be said about Bate’s book? Read it. The guy has been writing extensively about Shakespeare, and he knows what he’s talking about. Bate’s focus is wide, shifting from the birth of the English novel and the brilliance of English comedy to the deep Englishness of landscape poetry and the cultural diversity of Britain’s Nobel literature laureates. And then it continues on a more in-depth analysis, with close readings from Shakespeare to Burnette’s “The Secret Garden”, and a series of wonderful instances of how literary texts change as they are transmitted from writer to reader.
“We would not want to read yesterday’s newspaper again and again. Nor the thriller or romance or comic caper that web picked up at the last minute on the airport bookstall. The books that are rad again and again become literature. Sometimes one of them will be a thriller or romance or comic caper. Or a children’s story. A book may be described as a ‘classic’ thriller or ‘classic romance´ when it becomes definitive of its genre. It may be described as a ‘classic‘ pure and simple when it transcends the limits if its genre – Charlotte Bröntë’s Jane Eyre is more than just a romance – and when it continues to be re-read in generations after its own. Samuel Johnson, in his preface to Shakespeare, said that the only test of literary greatness is “length of duration and continuance of esteem.” Why do we keep on reading the so-called classics (Shakespeare comes to mind)? Shakespeare's perennial appeal is his polysemy and adaptability. Shakespeare never constrains his plays and his characters to one motif - there are always multiple reasons, multiple ways of interpreting and analysing his works, and as a result they are capable of meaning different things, often diametrically-opposed, to different people at the same time. I can read myself in Shakespeare over and over again, as long as I’m able to read, and as a result Shakespeare has continued to have reverberation even four hundred years after the texts were written.
"What do they know of England who only England know" I’m not sure I agree with Bate on the interpretation of this Kipling’s quote. I’ve always read this as we will know ourselves better if we can view ourselves through the eyes of others. Those who know other languages have, in general, a better understanding of English than those who do not. Of course, the word "English" may be replaced by any other, namely, Portuguese, German, etc. I’d be interested in knowing your take on this.
Classics are non-verifiable and non-replicable, meaning no one knows how to produce classics. That’s the beauty of art, and literature in particular.
GR = Goodreads
BL = Booklikes
LF = Leafmarks