LINGUIST List 13.2996

Mon Nov 18 2002

Review: Language and Reading: Montgomery et al (2000)

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What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Simin Karimi at siminlinguistlist.org.

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  1. Mario Saraceni, Montgomery et al. (2000) Ways of Reading

Message 1: Montgomery et al. (2000) Ways of Reading

Date: Mon, 18 Nov 2002 18:35:45 +0700
From: Mario Saraceni <Mario.Saraceniiele.au.edu>
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.

Mario Saraceni, Assumption University, Bangkok

[This book has not yet been announced on the LINGUIST List. --Eds.]

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, especially 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.
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