This lucid and elegantly written book is a sustained conversation about the nature and importance of literary interpretation. Distinguished critic Denis Donoghue argues that we must read texts closely and imaginatively, as opposed to merely or mistakenly theorizing about them. He shows what serious reading entails by discussing texts that range from Shakespeare's plays to a novel by Cormac McCarthy. Donoghue begins with a personal chapter about his own early experiences reading literature while he was living and teaching in Ireland. He then deals with issues of theory, focusing on the validity of different literary theories, on words and their performances, on the impingement of oral and written conditions of reading, and on such current forces as technology and computers that impinge on the very idea of reading. Finally he examines certain works of literature: Shakespeare's Othello and Macbeth, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a passage from Wordsworth's The Prelude, a chapter of Joyce's Ulysses, Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" and "Coole and Ballylee, 1931," and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian demonstrating what these texts have in common and how they must be differentiated through a sympathetic, imaginative, and informed reading.
In the theoretical Babel of contemporary literary criticism, the art of reading has sometimes found itself lost in the shuffle. This deeply unfashionable book makes a case for once again paying attention
to the particulars of literary language. NYU professor Denis Donoghue makes no secret of his critical heroes: Messrs. Leavis, Blackmur, and Burke, among others, though he insists that "The moral of the story is not: Back to the New Criticism." Drawn from a number of essays and lectures that first appeared in other forums, the book is somewhat fractured, and in attacking the worst excesses of identity politics, it also knocks down some straw men. To take just one of the examples Donoghue offers, one need not refuse to read "Leda and the Swan," as one of his students did, in order to ask questions about its central metaphor. To do so is neither to eschew close attention to the poem's language nor to become a crusader for PC dogma.
The Practice of Reading reads best as a love poem to the joys and complexities of literary language, as when Donoghue explicates texts ranging from Shakespeare's Macbeth to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. These sample readings are unfailingly perceptive, imaginative, and fair, and his depth of reference is impressively broad. Donoghue's brand of aesthetic formalism is an approach just old- fashioned enough to find favor again. In any case, his extraordinarily lucid and elegant prose means that this book deserves an audience far wider than that of contemporary academicians--who are sure to hate it, anyway.