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Sociolinguistics from the Periphery "presents a fascinating book about change: shifting political, economic and cultural conditions; ephemeral, sometimes even seasonal, multilingualism; and altered imaginaries for minority and indigenous languages and their users"
Date: Mon, 18 Nov 2002 18:35:45 +0700 From: Mario Saraceni Subject: Montgomery et al. (2000) Ways of Reading
Montgomery, Martin, Alan Durant, Tom Furniss and Sara Mills (2000) Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Students of English Literature, 2nd edition. Routledge, paperback ISBN 0-415-2206-0, xiv+369pp.
Announced in: http://cf.linguistlist.org/cfdocs/new-website/LL-WorkingDirs/pubs/books/get-book.cfm?BookID=10971
Mario Saraceni, Assumption University, Bangkok
As its subtitle states, Ways of Reading is a textbook for students of English literature. This statement, however, may be slightly misleading and, in order to avoid misunderstandings on the part of the book's potential audience, some important clarification is required. The book does not follow the traditional format with a chronological series of authors and texts, nor does it provide instructions about how to read English literature. On the contrary, it explores aspects of language and literature with reference to a plethora of texts drawn from an eclectic range of media, including film, advertisement and news, apart from more canonically literary forms like poetry and narrative.
The book is structured into six sections, each covering one broad aspect of reading. Section one offers an introduction to the very nature of reading; section two examines sociolinguistic considerations of language variation; sections three and four are dedicated to poetry; section five is about narrative in prose and in film; section six deals with non-literary texts. All six sections, in turn, are organised into a number of units (typically 3 to 6 per section), each including one activity and some recommended further readings.
The activities proposed are devised in such a way as to require students to play a very active role in the process of reading. Accordingly, they do not simply involve reading as such, but also writing, reconstructing, inventing, and even drawing. Ultimately, it is not so much comprehension which is emphasised, as the collaboration between readers and texts, and what the former can do in order to make sense of the latter. The activities are well designed - I have used several of them in my classes - and easily adaptable with other texts.
In general, the book clearly favours a language-based approach to the analysis of literary (and non-literary) texts. The readership of Ways of Reading, then, is potentially much wider than that identified by ''students of English literature'', as the book can also be useful for students of English as a foreign language, specially if they are engaged in courses which make use of literature as a resource for language teaching and learning.
Indeed, flexibility really seems to be the key word in this textbook - in the content of the various sections and units, in the target audience and in the way the notion literature is intended. Significantly, as I will discuss below, this is both the strength and the weakness of the book.
The scope of Ways of Reading is impressively broad, as it includes elements drawn from theories of reading, sociolinguistics, stylistics, and media studies. The way the various topics are treated is never too technical, which makes the book very accessible to students who do not have a solid background in literary studies or in linguistics. The lists of recommended readings included at the end of all units come particularly useful for those who are interested in more in-depth treatment of the topics dealt with.
The usability of the book, however, can be somewhat reduced precisely by the wide range of disciplines it draws from. It is hard to find the exact location of Ways of Reading, and while it can certainly be successfully used in a variety of university courses, one suspects this book will not be easily adopted as a core text.
The presence of the subtitle ''Advanced reading skills for students of English literature'' is significant, as it clearly attempts to define the scope of the book and its target audience. However, one only has to look at the table of contents and the well defined lines in the cover start to blur a little. Not that this is necessarily a disadvantage (and, after all, with five different authors a certain amount of variety is to be expected), but I suspect that many lecturers might tend to consider this book as a useful resource for activities to be kept in their personal libraries, rather than as a core textbook for a course in English literature. The various topics seem to be juxtaposed to one another rather than coherently organised and this may go against clarity.
What complicates things further, in my opinion, is the inclusion, in this second edition, of a sixth section called ''Beyond the literary text''. One obvious potential objection to this choice is that if this is a book for students of English literature, why is there a whole section on non-literary texts? The answer is presumably found in the recognition that ''it is difficult to make a hard and fast distinction between texts which are literary and texts which are not'' and that ''Some features which we associate strongly with literature ... also occur in other kinds of discourse'' (p. 326). These statements seem to go along the lines of the ideas, put forward during the last decade, of literature with a small 'l' and of literariness as pervading texts not canonically considered literary (see Carter and Nash 1990; McRae, 1991; Maley 1995).
In actual fact, however, Ways of Reading offers a much more rigid and conventional view about literature. The authors observe that if asked about the main kinds of literature, ''almost anyone ... will say novels, poems and plays'' (p. 308) and the book seems to agree.
The key to this apparent contradiction can be found in the last part of the book, as the presence of a separate section dedicated to ''non-literary texts'' makes it clear where the boundaries are, as if to say: some texts, like advertisements for example, may contain some literary features but one must never forget that literature is novels, poems and plays. Within this section, unit 25 offers a discussion about ''Judgement and value'', and a seemingly critical overview of the ways in which literature has been canonically thought of. Here the authors observe that ''Poetry is often seen as a more valued genre than prose'' (p. 302) and, in perfect agreement, twelve out of a total of twenty-seven activities in the book involve poems, reflecting the traditional view of poetry as the literary form par excellence.
Similarly, ''many people assume that [film] is of less value than literature'' and, accordingly, when, in unit 21, the book examines film as a narrative form, one perceives a sense of apology in the choice of dealing almost exclusively with films which have been adapted from novels.
Lastly, the adherence to traditional canons in Ways of Reading is further reinforced by what the modifier ''English'' means in ''English literature''. One possibility is that ''English literature'' refers to literature produced in England or by English writers. This interpretation is not supported in the book, since the texts analysed do not come exclusively from England. The authors seem to have opted for a wider concept of ''English literature'', but how much wider? The alternative to the first possibility would be for ''English literature'' to refer to literature written in English, including the wealth of literary production in English from Asia and Africa. However, the texts included in Ways of Reading come mainly from precise geographical areas: Britain, Ireland and North America. Even in unit 5, ''Language and place'', which deals with dialects and varieties of English, there are no texts as samples of world ''Englishes'', except for one poem by Kamala Das.
In a paragraph entitled ''Black writing and literature in English'' (where ''Black writing'' is used as a label describing writers as diverse as Caryl Phillips and Chinua Achebe) the authors lament that ''traditional value judgements about what literature should be like have often excluded Black writing'' (p. 304). In accordance, Ways of Reading excludes Caribbean writing, African writing and Asian writing.
Overall, I think that this textbook is very useful mainly as a source of interesting activities which can help students learn about the way language works in literature. However, the main problems are a certain lack of internal coherence and the text selection, which suffers from apparent contradictions between stated principles and practice.
REFERENCES Carter and Nash (1990) Seeing Through Language. Oxford: Blackwell. McRae, J. (1991) Literature with a small 'l'. London: Macmillan. Maley, A. (1995) Short and Sweet. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Mario Saraceni is a lecturer at Assumption University, Bangkok. His main research interests lie in the areas of the interface between semiotics and linguistics, issues concerning English as a global language, the interface between language and literature, and the possibilities offered by corpus linguistics for language analysis.