BOOK REVIEW: Comparative Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Ben Hutchinson

Comparative Literature: A Very Short IntroductionComparative Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Ben Hutchinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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By the book’s end, I had a much better grasp of the field of Comparative Literature, which is a multidisciplinary subject concerned with comparing / contrasting various forms of literature across time and space (among other ways.) That said, it’s not one of the more friendly of books in this series for a neophyte in need of a grasp of the basics of a field. [I’m a big fan of the AVSI series, and frequently turn to it.]

I attribute the book’s problems to two factors. First of all, the first chapter didn’t feel like it really said anything, and I came away from it with the thought, “So, Comparative Literature is all the disparate things I thought it might be, and more.” I understand why there’s a desire for a broad overview upfront, but it would work better for a discipline that was more contained and orderly.

Second, while it might be the necessary way to tell the story of this discipline, the book spends a lot of space discussing comparisons between literary theorists and what felt like little in comparisons of works of literature. The challenge is that most readers come to such a book with an extensive understanding of major works of world literature, but few people outside the field are familiar with literary theorists and critics. A reader might expect to learn why and how “Don Quixote” would be compared to stories of Jorge Luis Borges or Ovid, but one learns more about how the ideas of Roland Barthes compare to those of George Steiner.

Once I got into the second chapter, I felt I was getting a little clarity on the subject and that the chapter was well organized for learning. In subsequent chapters, I found that there were many interesting ways of thinking about translation of literature, the debates in the field, and the competing ideas about discipline’s future. The book also has a useful further reading section that breaks down the various dimensions of comparative literature a little so that interested parties can find a line of attack to advance their studies.

Ultimately, I think the book helps one get a grasp of the subject, but I’d skip over the first chapter and then go back to it once one has a little confidence that there will be clarity rather than obscurity in store.


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