The Practice of Reading
Called by one critic a “deeply unfashionable book,” THE PRACTICE OF READING is a thoughtful and civil attack on many contemporary approaches toward literature—Deconstruction, cultural studies, and Marxism being the chief enemies—and an equally careful explanation of Denis Donoghue’s own approach, one which derives from the New Criticism of post-World War I critics F.R. Leavis, R.P. Blackmur, and Kenneth Burke. Though Donoghue announces that the “moral of the story is not: Back to the New Criticism,” he is indeed espousing a practice of reading which embodies those qualities which the New Critics honored—close, patient, exacting, disinterested, objective reading of a text.
In fifteen essays, many of which originally appeared as journal articles or lectures, Donoghue lays out his objections to what he sees as the reductionism of many current literary theories. He then demonstrates how his own approach differs from those limited ways of reading by examining, in the last seven chapters, specific texts and writers: OTHELLO, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, ULYSSES, BLOOD MERIDIAN, William Wordsworth, Walter Pater, and William Butler Yeats.
Denis Donoghue’s concern is, finally, the imagination—what he describes as “the seeing of difference.” He objects to the tendency to define ourselves by referring to what he calls “the nearest categories and stereotypes to hand: I am female or male, white or colored, gay or heterosexual.” Instead, he reminds readers of the motive for reading—pleasure—the pleasure which comes from exercising the imagination by “going out from one’s self toward other lives, other forms of life, past, present, and perhaps future.” This practice of reading has fallen away, and Denis Donoghue’s approach to literature, unfashionable though it may be in some circles, is a refreshing and provocative reminder that literature can indeed connect human beings, one to another, by stretching us beyond our familiar, predictable existences and transplanting us into new worlds—through the power of the imagination.
Sources for Further Study
Boston Globe. October 29, 1998, p. D4.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, November 8, 1998, p. 14.
Philadelphia Inquirer. November 8, 1998, p. Q4.
Washington Times. November 1, 1998, p. B8.