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Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland.

Book Review Score (out of five)    ♥♥♥♥♥

While I make my way through the next book in the list of The Women's Prize for Fiction here is a review of a book I received from NetGalley in advance of publication.

John Sutherland, author of A Little History of Literature, takes us by the hand and leads us safely through the deep, heavily wooded forest that is the written word.  As the author states in his introduction to the book, “…literature is not a little thing. There is hugely more of it than any of us will read in a lifetime.” Thankfully the author utilises a path constructed of wonderful books that make the journey a very pleasant affair.
During the author’s journey we encounter the likes of Homer, Chaucer, the Metaphysical Poets, Dr. Johnson, Jane Austen, the Romantic Poets, Kipling, Woolf and many others. John Sutherland finds the time to stop and tell us stories about 'Theatre in the Street', 'Who ‘owns’ literature', 'The King James Bible' and 'Literature and the Censor'. It may be ‘a little history’ but the book is 284 pages long.
As with any book that crams a long history of any subject, and particularly literature, into relatively few pages there will be many people debating as to who should have been included within the author’s pages. Personally, I believe the omission of the poet Stevie Smith when discussing the the ‘voice of pain’ as an oversight. Ted Hughes believed that at the bottom of the inner most spirit of poetry is a ‘voice of pain’. Included in this discussion is the poets John Berryman, Anne Sexton. Both of these poets committed suicide and in their poetry they ‘signalled the act’. Stevie Smith is also a member of the suicide club that is very peculiar to poets. Personally, I believe her poetry is head and shoulders above that of John Berrymans and at least on a par with that of Anne Sexton.
I could take umbrage with Mr Sutherland over his decision not to mention or acknowledge the likes of Evelyn Waugh and E.E. Cummings. However, it would be small minded and churlish to dislike a book of this kind for not mentioning some of my favourite writers. John Sutherland’s, if I can borrow a film metaphor, cutting room floor will be covered in the blood of writers who had to be chopped from the book due to lack of space and time.
John Sutherland has written this book in his own inimitable style; witty, erudite and unpatronizing. Like so many of John Sutherland’s other books, ‘Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives’ and ‘Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers’ to name but a few, he manages to write in an informative, adroit, compelling manner that never becomes tedious or pedagogic in style.

 I will leave the last word to the author: “This little history is not a manual but advice along the lines of, you may find this valuable, because many others have, but at the end of the day you must decide for yourself.”

Number of Pages - 294
Sex Scenes - None.
Profanity - None
Genre - Non-Fiction.

This review was based on an advanced copy via


  1. I tried to comment a few minutes ago but somehow it didn't make it through. I put this book on my Amazon wishlist yesterday but if it's on NetGalley I need to pop over there and try to get my hands on it.

    1. Hi Lisa. Hopefully it is still there. Look forward to see what you think about this book.