A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

An easily grasped primer on our finest wordsmiths, from Homer through the Bröntes, Proust and Kafka.


John Sutherland (Lives of the Novelists) tackles an impressively broad subject in A Little History of Literature. Beginning with Homer and The Epic of Gilgamesh, Chaucer and Shakespeare, he hopes to instruct his reader in literature–what it is, where it’s been and where it might be headed.

Sutherland takes us from a childhood of “reading… under the blanket, with a torch, after lights out,” and the genesis of children’s literature, through the modern developments that brought us Fifty Shades of Grey and genre divisions. Even as he recounts the historical details behind Beowulf or the birth of the King James Bible, he skips forward to reference current trends, markets and buying habits, relating them to centuries-old forces. Major works from many centuries are joined by digressions into the history of printing, of copyright and of books themselves.

Sutherland presupposes a certain background among his readers: “much of what many of us know about science comes from reading science fiction,” for example, or his description of “many” or “most” children growing up reading at home. He also focuses, with few exceptions, on Western literature, although he does make a conscious effort to call attention to the role of women writers within that tradition. These issues aside, this slim book makes for a necessarily cursory review of literature’s greats–and the loving treatment by an expert, presented in easily understood terms, will please both novices and established readers looking to dip back into well-loved works.

This review originally ran in the November 19, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 historical trends.

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