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.

The Practice of Reading

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Denis Donoghue is University Professor and Henry James Chair of English and American Letters at New York University. Born in Ireland, he has had a number of professional positions, from administrative officer in Dublin’s Department of Finance to radio lecturer for the British Broadcasting Corporation. However, he is best known for his books of literary criticism and his contributions to such publications as The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, and The Times Literary Supplement. His combined backgrounds of academe and journalism are apparent in The Practice of Reading, a collection of fifteen essays that are scholarly and readable, erudite and accessible. They are also considered unfashionable by those who are committed to current emphases in literary criticism such as deconstruction, Marxism, and cultural studies—the targets of Donoghue’s critical and civil attack.

In the opening essay, a personal account of himself entitled “Curriculum Vitae,” Donoghue announces, “The moral of the story is not: Back to the New Criticism.” However, he is indeed espousing a revival of, if not a return to, that school of criticism, also called formalism, which developed in England and the United States after World War I. Led by such scholars as F. R. Leavis, R. P. Blackmur, and Kenneth Burke—scholars whom Donoghue cites and praises throughout his book—this kind of literary criticism was characterized by analytic, or close, reading of the text. New Criticism focused attention upon the language, imagery, and emotional or intellectual tensions in a particular literary work to explain its total formal aesthetic organization. This is the kind of reading Denis Donoghue is calling for: close, patient, exacting, disinterested, objective reading of a text.

Since most of the essays in The Practice of Reading originally appeared as journal articles or lectures, the book lacks the unity of a carefully constructed piece of literary criticism. It also lacks the polemical quality often found in such works. Instead, this is a carefully reasoned, civil examination of reading—how to read and how not to read. Despite the tendency toward fragmentation, certain themes recur and connect the fifteen chapters.

Perhaps the most important theme is imagination—what Donoghue describes as “the seeing of difference.” He objects to the current tendency of people to define themselves by referring to what he calls “the nearest categories and stereotypes to hand: I am female or male, white or colored, gay or heterosexual, Occidental or Oriental.” This kind of thinking, which he dubs “identity politics,” traps people into believing that they cannot understand that which they are not. Donoghue becomes personal in his attack on the politicians of identity: “Surely I can’t be the only person who resents being told that I can’t understand what it means to be a woman because I’m not one, can’t understand being gay because I’m not, can’t imagine being African- American because I’m Irish and white?” The operative word in this admission of frustration is “imagine,” for Donoghue believes that imagination is the antidote to the disease of identity politics and its effect upon the practice of reading. If imagination, as Donoghue asserts, is “the seeing of difference,” then reading is the optimum exercise for imagination. In this way, the motive for reading—pleasure, not political statements—is asserted, the pleasure that comes from exercising the imagination by “going out from one’s self toward other forms of life, past, present, and perhaps future.”

How should we read, and how should we not read? These questions, the core of Donoghue’s book, are addressed in particular detail in the essays entitled “Three Ways of Reading” and “The Practice of Reading.” Naming the three ways after writers Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde, Donoghue explains the qualities that he believes characterize the best practice of reading, qualities that are clearly those of the New Critics: objectivity, patience, exactness, disinterest. He illustrates this practice by an objective, patient, exact, disinterested reading of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, showing how his approach differs...

(The entire section is 1771 words.)