Review: A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

‘Question: What is the difference between a dialect and a language?
Answer: A language is a dialect with an army behind it.’

cover36182-medium‘This “little history” takes on a very big subject: the glorious span of literature from Greek myth to graphic novels, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Harry Potter. […] Sutherland introduces great classics in his own irresistible way, enlivening his offerings with humor as well as learning: Beowulf, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, the Romantics, Dickens, Moby DickThe Waste Land, Woolf, 1984, and dozens of others. He adds to these a less-expected, personal selection of authors and works, including literature usually considered well below “serious attention”—from the rude jests of Anglo-Saxon runes to The Da Vinci Code. With masterful digressions into various themes—censorship, narrative tricks, self-publishing, taste, creativity, and madness—Sutherland demonstrates the full depth and intrigue of reading. For younger readers, he offers a proper introduction to literature, promising to interest as much as instruct. For more experienced readers, he promises just the same.’

A Little History of Literary is not just a discussion about high-cannon literature, but about the journey from Myths, Tragedies and Epics to modern-day literature consumption, discussion and awarding. Sutherland is an engaging, with a loose academic feel to his writing that is easy to delve in and out of and while this is only a little history of literature, it feels expansive and detailed, motivating further study.

Acting as an anthropologist of literature, Sutherland discusses the history of literature offering facts and examples and excluding his own opinions. Much as Daniel Davies did with science in The Compatibility Gene, literary texts and movements are expanded with information on authors and participants, creative a more engaging reading experience. Initially I was critical of the white lead texts Sutherland referenced, however, at around 80% into the book he does cover topics like postcolonialism and mentions authors such as Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie.

This is definitely a book worth the reading for anyone with a love of literature, I took several trips to the Amazon Kindle store while reading, now owning copies of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Paradise Lost by John Milton and Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Sutherland somehow managed to make books I had thought unappealing appear fascinating.

“Literature, that wonderfully creative product of the human mind, will, in whatever new forms and adaptations it takes, forever be a part of our lives, enriching our lives.”

A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland was published Yale University Press and was kindly given to me via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review , thank you! 

4 thoughts on “Review: A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

    1. It was just a shame there wasn’t more to reference earlier on, but I guess historically white history is more documented/was favoured. Would have enjoyed a mention of some early chinese or Indian literature though.


  1. Oh do, do, do read Paradise Lost. I absolutely love Paradise Lost. I had avoided it for years, and then I read a short excerpt of it for my senior-year high school English class and couldn’t believe how gorgeous and wonderful the writing was. I love it so much, even though Milton annoys me in many ways. He writes exactly like Latin.


    1. I think I’m going to save it for Christmas, I have a few days off around then I want to cram with reading. I’ll dedicate a day to it as I did with Wuthering Heights a few years ago.


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