Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age

The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age makes for a very pleasurable read, even though I have trouble with its central thesis -- that contemporary modes of literary criticism are damaging to the act of reading itself.
Robert Alter, a biblical scholar who has recently published a new translation of The Five Books of Moses, takes on the post-structuralist crowd in this volume, arguing that students are spending too much time these days (the book was written in 1989) reading Derrida, Foucault, Lacan and other French literary critics, and too little time reading Dickens, Tolstoy and the Bible. He may be right in terms of what is being taught in universities, but I think he's wrong that contemporary criticism should be blamed. I'll concede that people may be misusing the French critics, but I would argue that they have provided useful new insights into the ways that texts (a term he despises) of all sorts are perceived by readers.
There's a long argument to be engaged in here, and I'm not sure I feel like getting into it.
Let's just say that Alter's disagreement with contemporary critics takes up only parts of the first and last chapters of his book. The rest of the volume is, fortunately, full of his thoughts about great literature, and it has the pleasurable effect of an afternoon spent flipping through a library, reviewing and reflecting on passages from Anna Karenina, The Aeneid, Tom Jones, The Sound and the Fury, Moby Dick, and other great works of fiction and poetry.
In successive chapters he considers the issues of Character, Style, Allusion, Structure and Perspective, showing how value can be
I love books like this. They conjure up warm memories of days spent with great literature, and open our eyes to literature we've missed. The book this one most reminded me of is Mary McCarthy's Ideas and the Novel, another tome whose thesis may be questionable but whose value is in the insights provided into great books.
It's a book worth reading, owning and using for suggestions on expanding your literary horizons.