John Sutherland’s newest compendium, A Little History of Literature, is aimed, he says, at young people and students. But perhaps only a couple hundred American high school students will, of their own volition, pick up a copy at their local bookstore (or on their local web browser), and even fewer will finish the damn thing. In reality, most readers of Sutherland’s ambitious project (which seeks to squeeze all of Western literature into one rather petite, less-than-300 page book) will be the small subset of people for whom a romp through 3,000 plus years of literary history will be a quick and entertaining intellectual exercise. Those readers might be better off plumbing the depths of Wikipedia.
I desperately wanted this project to yield fruitful results. Sutherland’s massive Lives of the Novelists is an informative but engaging desktop tome, the perfect accessory for any critic in need of quick information, but also desirous of a pleasing voice and some well-turned phrases. I refer to it often and take great pleasure in its attention to detail. But even as a primer, Little History skims too lightly over each subject—Sutherland offers less than 20 pages on all of literature before Shakespeare. More distressingly, Sutherland writes each sentence with an unyielding twenty-first century mindset. The creation of all of mythology is reduced to the ignorance of our ancestors, and Sutherland remarks that only empires can produce epics—nevermind all of the reasons that epics may simply have survived more easily when held in the libraries of history’s victors. All of literature is here reduced to a simple First A, Then B, Then C rhetoric that will dissuade savvy readers and misinform the naïve. We have textbooks for this sort of nonsense, why not supply our children with a survey of the true riches of our literary heritage?
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