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This review is taken from PN Review 140, Volume 27 Number 6, July - August 2001.

RICH AND STRANGE MICHAEL ALEXANDER, A History of English Literature (Macmillan) £40 hb, £12.99 pb

Literary history is, as Michael Alexander comments, generally written by the victors and this new introduction to English Literature is best read as a case in their defence. His intention is to provide a novice reader with a single, readable narrative history of literature written in England over 2000 years, and to achieve this with such verve is a demonstration of great concision and no little wit. The purpose of a text such as this (part of the Macmillan foundation guides for school student or undergraduate use) is to both teach and delight, and it certainly does both. Any fair assessment of this book should consider its pedagogic motive, which is to teach a reader with no prior knowledge of literary criticism and little British history. For this reader, institutional student or otherwise, the volume intends to be both ordinance map and narrative of literature: a guide to what they ought to know and a general entertainment 'for those who want to know its story'. In fact the volume demonstrates the virtues of an accessible guide to the traditional canon and the limitations that arise from it. The best response, then, is to consider the book as a pedagogic device, and consider what model of informed reading practice and literary knowledge Alexander advocates to the reader.

History in this volume is really the continuity of taste through historical fashion: by literature, Alexander means writing that retains 'human interest'; 'its language has to have life, and its form ...


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