Acknowledging that storytelling is as old as humanity itself, The Literature Book takes on the daunting challenge of giving readers a historical and functional overview of literary works and their progression through the ages. The book starts with 4,600-year-old Sumerian texts and carries all the way up to select contemporary works as recent as 2013—encompassing novels, plays, and poetry. Its presentation style is sometimes dry, but orderly in format and highly informative.
What I Liked:
There was a solid effort made to present a diverse array of works outside of the classical European variety—inclusive of cultural sub-genres such as Sanskrit Epics, Imperial Chinese Poetry, Early Arabic Lit, Slave Narratives, Inianismo, Baihua Lit, The Harlem Renaissance, The Latin American Boom, Caribbean, and Indian English.
Personal Note: Page 93 conveyed an excellent, concise explanation of early Japanese theater forms. This reader didn't previously grasp the difference between Kabuki(theatrical song/dance/mime) and Bunraku(musical puppet theater) until it was so clearly laid out in this book.
The Literature Book claims it “cuts through the literary jargon” and is “packed with witty illustrations.” I don’t know about cutting through, but it does explain literary terms with textbook thoroughness. And although there is certainly an abundance of illustrations to break up the sometimes dense visual field, I wouldn’t personally refer to said imagery as “witty.” The diagrams, visual-aid images, excised quotes, and timelines are simplistic—mono and duo-chromatic. Effectively breaking up dense swaths of text and enhancing to the overall comprehension potential without becoming a distraction. Full-color pictures and artwork appear more sporadically and offer a stronger sense of place and/or ambiance to the subjects they pertain to.
What Didn’t Work For Me:
Chosen works may receive only a sentence of passing mention, or as much as 6 analytical pages (i.e. Moby-Dick). The authors receive anything from cursory reference, to a mini-bio, to a full biography including a picture. How it was decided which authors, genres, and works were worthy of how much recognition remains a point of confusion for this reader. Sci-fi and Fantasy seemed to receive disproportionately minimal attention, and the Romance genre—along with its representative authors—received no address at all.
Unfortunately, a number of prolific and influential authors were all but passed over. I was personally disappointed the book didn't offer a bio for either C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. Their works seemed mentioned only in passing when the fantasy genre is touched on. Lewis is only referred to once very briefly, and there's no allusion to his sci-fi works at all. Jules Verne receives the most mention of any sci-fi author (page 184), but no bio. And H.G. Wells is allotted only a single sentence—though he could arguably be considered one of the pioneering fathers of science fiction.
Conversely, TWO of the three Bronte sisters (Emily and Charlotte) have full bios with pictures included, though Emily wrote just one novel. That’s not to say I don’t approve of their inclusion and highlighted significance—only to point out the disparity in emphasis.
While I wouldn’t call this book an exhaustive authority, it certainly has the potential to be a valuable and semi-encyclopedic tool in the pursuit of a more advanced literary education. Studious readers are likely to come away with both factual knowledge, as well as a fresh list of works they may be interested in experiencing at length.
College-bound Young Adults perusing a major in literature might consider this book a preparatory framework for their degree, and perhaps a leg-up on their future.