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Reviewed by:
  • How to Read World Literature, and: Teaching World Literature, and: The Longman Anthology of World Literature
  • John M. Kopper (bio)
How to Read World Literature. By David Damrosch. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 147 pp. Paper $24.95.
Teaching World Literature. Edited by David Damrosch. New York: Modern Language Association, 2009. 440 pp. Paper $22.00.
The Longman Anthology of World Literature. 2nd ed. 6 vols. Edited by David Damrosch and David L. Pike. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. Paper $300.00.

In Borges's story "The Aleph," the narrator's account of what he saw at/ in the mysterious Aleph appears to echo the book project of one of the characters, an undertaking that "covers" entire hectares of the Australian landscape. If the aleph stands for the totality of literature, then today's rich and expanding bibliography of works about that immensity, along with the increasingly massive anthologies that seek to encircle it, show that we have lost our fear of the unbounded object that we study. In his Teaching World Literature, How to Read World Literature, and the six-volume second edition of the Longman Anthology of World Literature, coedited with David Pike, David Damrosch has more than created a classroom Australia. He has produced a pedagogy. The vastness of the debate entered into by Damrosch, his coeditors and contributors leaves the instructor of literature with many [End Page 399] teaching tools, some uncertainty, and a few intriguing questions about today's pedagogical imperatives.

Teaching World Literature contains thirty-two essays by scholars who have taught world literature courses. Damrosch gathers them in sections that steer the reader to the specific: "Issues and Definitions," "Program Strategies," "Teaching Strategies," and "Courses." Beleaguered by the fall-off of Americans' interest in reading books of any sort, an instructor turns instinctively to the second section, a justification for world literature courses that is less theoretical than tactical and tied to the floating policies and intellectual engagements of different campus communities. Summarizing the authors' approaches, Damrosch notes that "from Goethe's time onward, definitions of world literature have oscillated among three basic paradigms: as classics, as masterpieces, and as windows on the world" (3). Thomas Beebee recasts these as Friedrich Nietzsche's three archetypes of historical writing: the antiquarian, the monumental, and the critical in his contribution to the volume (276). In Teaching World Literature it is the "critical" study of literature that predominates and receives validation. Kathleen Komar, for example, describes how the particular cultural and ethnic environment of the UCLA student population has not only guided her teaching aims but to a great degree inflected class discussion of texts. The fortunes of history turned Kleist's "Michael Kohlhaas" and Büchner's Woyzeck, read in her class in 1992 during the LA riots, into narratives that spoke to the city outside the window, where "the very legal and political systems that are supposed to uphold justice and equality become polluted and corrupt" (107).

In How to Read World Literature, Damrosch responds to his title's question by asking us to "read around in anthologies" or take a favorite author and travel back to her or his favorite authors (125-26). "This book is organized around a set of skills that we need to develop—or recover and hone—in order to read world literature with understanding and enjoyment" (4). "Skills" is the organizing principle of the volume. The first chapter's subheadings—"The World of the Text," "The Author's Role," "Modes of Reading," and "What is a Novel?"—reflect Damrosch's overarching concern with context. "The fundamental difference between the poet's role in the Chinese and English traditions... involves ways of reading as much as poetic practice" (20). While failing to answer its own question, the terse chapter on "What is a Novel?" shows that an informed understanding of Murasaki's The Tale of Genji requires knowledge not only of Japanese culture but of literature's place in that culture. To appraise the violation of a cultural norm, our students need to know the norm. [End Page 400]

A chapter on translation in How to Read gives a dizzying list of the variables that affect...


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