23 September 2009

How to Read World Literature, by David Damrosch

This book was added to the syllabus of the intro world literature class I'm teaching this fall by one of the higher-ups, so I read it today so as to figure out what to do with it. To my surprise (I dunno why I'm so cynical, but I guess this should teach me a lesson), it's actually a really great book. Extremely useful, accessible, and even entertaining. It actually deserves to be required reading in any world literature class! Who woulda thunk, eh?

Damrosch provides a clear, well-written overview of the merits and problems of studying "world" literature. The book handily explores questions of definition, translation, cross-cultural interpretation and understanding, and how to think about some of the power dynamics involved in this area. There's a particularly strong chapter on how various texts portray other places, that is particularly well done. Overall, the examples are useful and interesting - he tends towards the slightly profane or lewd ones, I think, which gives the book a nice irreverent feel, and will hopefully keep the students' interest. The text closes with a consideration of globalization and how it has shaped the reading - and writing - of world literature.

Whether you're just beginning literary studies or are, say, a phd student in comparative literature who has spent an awful lot of time thinking about the notion of world literature, the book is not only of interest, but even contains useful and interesting insights. I was really impressed. Much recommended.

PS - If my students turn out to have surprising reactions to the book, I'll report back.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I am a PhD student in Comp. Lit., and have recently found myself leaning towards this new field of world literature. I mean, I was always into literature from different parts of the world, but never knew what to name it! World literature just sounds fascinating to me. I have read Damrosch's "How to read World Literature," as well as his other book, "What is World Literature?," which I like more. But, yes, it seems world literature is becoming bigger and bigger in academia. I would be interested to see how your students respond. I also feel that world literature should not become a replacement of texts in original languages or literary disneyland for students. Because that would be tragic.

culture_vulture said...

Hmmm. I dunno about world literature as a field... what do you mean?
If you haven't already, you might check out the ACLA report books - Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism and Comparative Literature in the Age of Globalization. I know the latter has a few essays on the idea of world literature. And of course, Pascale Casanova's World Republic of Letters, though its star has fallen a bit, has some interesting things to say (even if I disagree with a lot of them).

Anonymous said...

It is actually difficult to differentiate between world literature and comp. lit., but what I mean by world lit as a field is, that in a decade or so, we will start having PhDs in world literature...I think world literature is more to do with the interaction between global and local texts...

culture_vulture said...

I dunno, maybe we disagree in our opinions of what comp lit ideally should be, but world lit as a field seems... undisciplined to me. Perhaps I'm being old fashioned, but I think that while it's important - necessary, in fact - to keep the bigger picture in perspective, if you start with such a big picture framework, you're going to miss a lot of important detail.
I literally just read Moretti's Thoughts on World Literature - http://www.newleftreview.org/A2094
and I totally disagree with him.
I think the interaction between global and local is a fascinating, and important, topic. I don't think you can really say anything interesting about it unless you're basing yourself in a specific area that you're highly familiar with - talking about it in more general terms is just that, general, and most likely involves cherry picking examples that fit your model while ignoring others that are probably more interesting anyhow.
That's just me though.