Critical reading gets hands on

Thinking About Texts
June 1, 2001

Good textbooks grow out of the experience of designing, running and refining particular courses. Very good textbooks retain that sense of particularity while opening themselves out for use by interested general readers, not just diligent students.

On that estimate, Thinking about Texts: An Introduction to English Studies is a good textbook with the makings of a very good one. Developed at Sheffield Hallam University over ten years, it was adventurously conceived and thoroughly trialled. My main query is how far the book can, in its infancy, support other courses. As a course in thinking about texts, this certainly gets students in on the act of critical reading. There are carefully staged reading activities on topics such as "Texts, authors, critics", "Genre", "History" and "Identities". The book has a similar focus to Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle's An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory but is much more hands on.

The subtitle, An Introduction to English Studies , is problematic, however, and indicative of the failure directly to engage with English studies in the fullest sense. There is a chapter dedicated to "The study of literature", but there is no corresponding chapter on the study of language; nor is there a concerted problematising of what has been or may yet be meant by "English" - language(s), literature(s), culture(s), people(s)...? In these respects there are other stronger and sophisticated texts on the market. Moreover, while student reading strategies are thoroughly cultivated, there is almost nothing on student writing and presentation, which in this competitive market means the book's textual apparatus is under-developed if it is to function flexibly on a variety of courses.

The single, quite spare contents page is not enough. Either it should have been fuller, or there should have been an index of terms and topics to supplement the present index (which curiously lists only authors). Thus, there is nowhere for a lecturer planning a course or session - or a student following one - to get an overview of just how rich the resources are. The chapter on "Identities", for instance, features substantial extracts from a wide range of writers (including Elizabeth Bowen, Robert Browning, Hel ne Cixous, Dickens, Lois Gates, Marx and Engels, Radclyffe Hall and Edward Said) as well as the whole of Margaret Atwood's short story "Happy Endings" and all of Wilde's Phrases and Philosophies for the Young . Meanwhile, the chapter on "Texts, authors, critics" showcases a series of teasing, partly pseudonymous poems by Archie Markham, and interview with him. But you would not know any of these things were there till you came across them on the page. These are mechanical faults, however, and easily remedied.

This is a textbook that will assuredly go into further editions, and get stronger in the process.

Rob Pope is professor of English studies, Oxford Brookes University.

Thinking About Texts: An Introduction to English Studies. First Edition

Author - Chris Hopkins
ISBN - 0 333 67607 6 and 67608 4
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 395

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