Monday, April 13, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
David Damrosch, How to Read World Literature. How to Study Literature. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Pp. vii, 139. ISBN 9781405168267. $25.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Stavroula Constantinou, University of Cyprus


The latest book by David Damrosch How to Read World Literature may be seen as a supplement to one of his earlier books entitled What Is World Literature? (2003), even though some of the themes discussed in the older book, such as literary translation and the circulation of texts, are repeated in the new book, and despite the fact that many of the texts and authors used to support the first book's arguments are reused for similar purposes in the second one. Both books aim at offering "ways in which works of literature can best be read" (What Is World Literature?, p. 5), "a set of modes of entry into the many worlds of world literature" (How to Read World Literature, p. 2). As for the meaning of the term "world literature", Damrosch defines it in the first book as "all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language" (What Is World Literature?, p. 4), while the more difficult question: what is "literature?" occupies him in the second book. In contrast to his first book on world literature, Damrosch's latest work is not addressed to specialists. Its intended readership includes general readers interested in world literature, and undergraduate students of literature. Such a readership determines the less scholarly character of this accessible and well-written book: there are no footnotes, and the use of technical terminology is minimal.

The book's clear and balanced structure also contributes to its accessibility . There are six chapters of more or less the same length, a short introduction and epilogue, a bibliography and an index. The first chapter ("What Is 'Literature'?") serves as a background to the rest of the book. Damrosch discusses briefly the meaning of "literature", which changes across times and cultures; as a result, the authors and readers of each tradition have different ideas about ways of creating and about its social role. They also have different expectations as to how to read various literary genres.

The other five chapters of the book under review may be divided into two main groups according to whom they mainly concern: the reader of world literature or the author. Chapters 2-4 belong to the first group. Their aim is to show how a reader can access the world of world literature. The second group, Chapters 5-6, discusses how authors can enter foreign cultures through their works. In this case, Damrosch's definition of "world literature", given above, does not seem to apply unless a work set in a culture different from that of its author circulates abroad.

Chapter 2 ("Reading Across Time") is about how to read a genre, for instance epic, across time In this chapter Damrosch intends, using the example of epic, to "explore the kinds of continuity and change we can encounter over time, as stories and metaphors evolve across centuries and languages within a varied but broadly connected tradition" (p. 25). Unfortunately, the author's purpose is not fully achieved. His analysis does not allow the reader to get a clear picture of the ways in which Western epic evolves throughout time. For instance, Damrosch chooses to discuss two traditional epic themes: the interaction between human beings and gods, and descent to the underworld. The examples he uses in his presentation of the first theme are only two: the Iliad and the older Epic of Gilgamesh, which does not belong to the Western literary tradition. He does not undertake a diachronic approach, as one would expect, in which the appearance of the theme, its uses and transformations in important Western epics from antiquity until today, would have been examined. In his discussion of the theme of descent to the underworld the author refers to more texts (Odyssey, Aeneid, Divine Comedy, Joyce's Ulysses and Walcott's Omeros). However, he does not cover all periods. Late antiquity, the earlier Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are not included. The chronological gaps among the discussed texts are so big, and the analysis so sketchy that the theme's "kinds of continuity and change" (p. 25) are neither sufficiently explored nor actually understood.

The third chapter ("Reading Across Cultures") concerns ways of reading a genre, such as drama, across cultures. Here the author's purpose is to offer "effective strategies for relating works from distant cultures" (p. 47). He compares Sophocles' Oedipus the King with Kalidasa's Shakuntala on the level of character and plot, and in their treatment of fate.

The last chapter of the first group ("Reading in Translation") discusses how readers should approach the translations of world literature they come across. One of the purposes of this chapter, achieved successfully by Damrosch, is to change translation's bad reputation. According to Damrosch, an excellent translation has the power to transform the original and even to improve it allowing readers to enter two cultural worlds: that of the author and that of the translator. Translation's higher importance, however, lies somewhere else: it makes world literature possible. A literary work wouldn't be able to travel outside its country of origin in order to reach foreign readers if it hadn't been translated into their own language. A chapter on translation, therefore, should be an essential part of every book devoted to the subject of world literature. In this case, the author outlines the issues readers should take into account when reading translations. In order to be able to appreciate a translation, a reader has to understand first the translator's strategies. Damrosch encourages his readers to read translations intelligently. An intelligent reading allows the reader to grasp the cultural exchange involved in a translation and the "new stage in a work's life as it moves from its first home out into the world" (p. 66).

While Chapter 4 is devoted to linguistic translations, Chapter 5 ("Going Abroad") talks about cultural translations made by the authors themselves who set their stories abroad and send their heroes there. In this chapter, Damrosch discusses the ways in which writers of various times and cultures "invade" foreign worlds. His emphasis is on the relationship between the foreign and the native worlds: how different or how close is the depicted foreign world to the author's own culture. As in the case of linguistic translations, Damrosch understands cultural translations as negotiations between two cultures.

The last chapter ("Going Global") investigates the strategies developed by writers in their attempt to reach the readers of our globalizing world. An important strategy is "glocalism" which according to Damrosch has two forms: the exportation of local situations abroad and the importation of global situations home. An example of the first form is the work of Kipling while the work of Orhan Pamuk is a graphic example of the second form.

In the epilogue, which is unusual in that it does not bring the book to a conclusion, the author offers answers to an important question that could have been asked at the outset: how to choose what to read from a massive literary production of 5000 years? As Damrosch rightly suggests, an easy way of selecting texts is to browse in some of the collections and anthologies of world literature. This is a very good advice; however, it does not apply to everyone, but mostly to English-speaking readers, since almost all big collections and anthologies of world literature are in English.

Undoubtedly, Damrosch's latest book is a useful tool for prospective readers (especially English-speaking ones) of world literature. It introduces them to major works of world literature and shows them how to read these works, both in their original form and in translation. The author succeeds in his endeavor to launch his readers to "read, and read, and read still more" (p. 124).

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