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This review is taken from PN Review 29, Volume 9 Number 3, January - February 1983.

READING AND VIOLENCE Bernard Sharratt, Reading Relations: Structures of Literary Production: A Dialectical Text/Book (Harvester) £18.95

Today, more than ever, reading literature is a vulnerable activity, difficult to justify and defend. Especially for well-read radicals. It entails a withdrawal from worldly action, a privileged interiority which seem hardly compatible with revolution, equality and collectivism. Indeed, it may be that reading is inherently conservative, that it involves an awareness of complexities, ambiguities and contradictions which subverts confident prescriptions for change. Thus it invites radical violence: violence which can be at its most destructive when it appears, not in book burnings and censorship, but in books themselves. Books such as Reading Relations.

The source of this violence is guilt; in Sharratt's case, the guilt of the radical literary academic at his own privilege, in a world of suffering and exploitation. He cannot renounce his privilege entirely; he knows that it has value, not only in terms of salary and status, but, more fundamentally, in terms of inward enrichment; so, even as he attacks it, he may well seek to preserve it. It is a contradiction, of course: one that rends Reading Relations.

The central issue in Sharratt's book is: Why read if you're a radical, and 'comrades are being shot and Indian villagers are starving?' Reading Relations attempts to answer that question by considering, from a wide variety of angles, 'the peculiar process of actually reading a work of literature'. In this, although irremediably a critical book, it deploys some of the major strategies of modernist and postmodernist fiction: disrupting organic unity, displacing ...


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