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Reviewed by:
  • The Practice of Reading
  • Francis Sparshott
The Practice of Reading, by Denis Donoghue; xii & 307 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, $30.00.

In an introductory chapter about how, as a student, he first encountered the world of books, Donoghue says, “It was my ambition to publish literary essays in the American quarterlies” (p. 5)—a strange ambition, to my mind, and one that must place its victim at the mercy of theories. Theories lay one open to ideologies that take one away from whatever actual book one is discussing. [End Page 223] Donoghue’s avowed mission in the present volume of essays is to show how ideology can be neutralized by close reading of the words on the page, with attention to every aspect of a text as written. The first part advances and develops the thesis that meanings attributed to a book should not only be supportable by its text but actually elicited from its totality. The second part consists of specific readings showing how this can be done for particular works. The air of the seminar pervades the whole.

My own early bias was the opposite of Donoghue’s. Poetry to me has always been primarily a matter of poems requiring to be made. Anyone thus engaged is immersed from beginning to end in the actuality of the emerging work in all its details, textures, and totalities; meanings, ideological slants, and in general things to be said about the work are of marginal concern. Teaching literature and contributing to learned journals as a job are deeply alien to such engagement. Donoghue, from this point of view, is offering a cure for self-inflicted wounds. He is hard on bad theories, because they threaten his teaching; if it were not for that, if his way of reading was securely based from the start on a deep immersion in the stuff of the written word, he might find them amusing and even illuminating as enchanting impossibilities.

The first part of the book is heavy going, weighted with allusions to books a general reader has little reason to read. After the autobiographical opening chapter, in which he explains why the “New Criticism” had great merits, a second chapter advises us, first, not to sacrifice beliefs, which relate to how we live our lives, to mere theories about what may or may not be the case; and, second, not to confuse such theories, which after all may be heuristically useful, with Theory, which purports to solve all problems and hence addresses no problem in particular. Kant’s late essay about reasonable religion comes in for a drubbing here, and so does Derrida’s “deconstruction,” which purports to demolish everything and so leaves everything in place. This seems unfair: what Derrida does, with unfailing invention and charm, is to demonstrate how claims to systematic completeness can always be shown to fail. The effect is liberating rather than reductive; the dreariness of Derrida’s American acolytes is merely the fate of academic hacks everywhere.

The next chapter is said to be about three ways of reading, but is not. It is about three ways of writing “criticism”: Matthew Arnold’s project of displaying a work as it really is, Walter Pater’s construction of a supposed equivalent for exactly how a work makes him feel, and Oscar Wilde’s fanciful notion that a critique is a creation occasioned by but otherwise independent of the work criticized. Donoghue’s exposition is admirably done but, so far as I can see, none of these three projects is incompatible with close reading, and none is in conflict with either of the others.

Chapter Four argues that today’s conditions make for rapid reading of many books, rather than careful reading of a few, a state of affairs that enables a critic to get away with claiming that in Macbeth the true values are represented by the [End Page 224] anarchic witches and not by the brutal monarchic order to which Duncan and Macbeth alike belong. It is true that this valuation cannot be supported by the witches’ part in the play as written, but is imposed by the critic. It is, however, appropriate...

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pp. 223-226
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