Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book #40, Literary Theory (A Very Short Introduction), Jonathan Culler

This is my first contact with the series of Very Short Introductions issued Oxford University Press, and I may have just gotten lucky, but I was really impressed. In truth I suspect they are consistently excellent, given their success (there are over 200 titles in print; see here for a list).

Culler, a distinguished Professor and contributor to structural critical theory, does a superb job of providing an introduction to the significant areas of discourse that modern 'theory' explores in eight brief but dense chapters, as well as placing the works of its key players in context.

I really appreciate his strategy of not structuring the book as a narrative of competing schools of thought and approaches, but rather of tackling questions of central relevance to theory and then, in the appropriate context, offering discussions of how the various theoretical movements have provided insights into said questions. This makes for a superior logical flow, and also places the emphasis back on the nature of theory itself, rather than the contentions of its multitudinous practitioners. Culler's writing, though sometimes a little repetitive, does an admirable job of distilling the essentials from the jargon, and of showing how often competing points of view must be accepted in tension with one another, rather than as components of a synthetic whole. His examples are well-considered, and a few touches of humor leaven some very abstract expostulations. Convenient appendices that briefly describe each movement, as well as listing all references and providing suggestions for further reading, round out the excellent text.

Needless to say, in this short 150-page book there is enormous food for thought. I have already found myself revisiting several chapters to check for understanding and recall (wait, was the dialectic of subversion and containment a key question for new historicists or for theorists of post-colonialism? etc. etc.). And of course, the recommended reading opens up fascinating avenues for further learning.
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