A Critic’s Library

ReadySteadyBook points us to this interesting series at Critical Mass: “Each week, the NBCC will post a list of five books a critic believes reviewers should have in their libraries.” Writers surveyed so far include John Updike, Morris Dickstein, Cynthia Ozick, Colm Toibin and Katha Politt; Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis is an unexpected crowd favourite, while some point to works of fiction or poetry rather than criticism or theory. If the question really is which books would be most useful to a practising critic, I think I’d incline towards reference books as much as exemplary scholarship or criticism. How about these five?

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms.
  3. Joseph Williams, Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace.
  4. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction.
  5. Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form.

On the other hand, if the real question is not which five books would be most useful for the broadest range of critical work but which five books exemplify your critical ideals, or which five books most provoked you to think about critical issues, or which five critical books you felt taught you the most about how to read (whether or not, in the end, you agree with them all the way), the list would look quite different, maybe something like this:

  1. M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (or Natural Supernaturalism).
  2. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic.
  3. Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction.
  4. Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature.
  5. David Lodge, The Art of Fiction.

But of course five is really not enough: I’d want to get in at least some of James’s critical prefaces, and some of Woolf’s Common Reader, and George Eliot’s essays, and probably The Great Tradition, because what it does, it does well, and maybe Lukacs’s The Historical Novel…So what would your top five be (and how would you choose to understand the question)?

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