I entered grad school this fall and am feeling a bit lost. Undergrad life can sometimes be a little dry and boring, what with all the lectures, but as a lit major, I get to do my favourite thing- read. However, now I am expected to read non-fiction books on literary and cultural theory, something I've never done or been interested in before. This past summer, I had asked my prof to recommend books that would help introduce me to the field and give me a little of the background I was lacking. One of the books she recommended was this one. I must say, I was a resistant reader; I felt very much out of my element and I knew little or nothing of the ground-breaking 20th century revolution in political, social and psychological theory that was now being applied to literary analysis.
At first, it was impossible for me to navigate Eagleton's book; it was a horror for two reasons: I knew nothing about the historicity of the philosophers, their theories or the movements that sprung up around these new ideas or the social conditions that fostered them. Every name: Husserl, Kant, Heidegger, Leavis (other than seeing his name as editor of a particular Penguin book I was reading), Hirsch, Hegel, Bakhtin, Gadamer, Fish, Barthes, et al.), every theory: phenomenology, reception, semiotics, structuralism and post-structuralism and every movement: essentialism, modernism, formalism, irrationalism, relativism, etc. was foreign to me, an unknown; every other word touched on something I knew very little about and understood less.
Secondly, Eagleton's breezy style was extremely difficult for me to decipher; his book was more like listening to a lecture than reading an introductory book. He loves to add -ness to the ends of words, like "bound-up-ness" or "shoeness" when discussing Van Gogh's ability to really paint the true quality of a shoe or "givenness" when explaining Heidegger's theory of the absolute, unequivocal "giveness" of the existence of humankind. He also throws out statements that are likewise unequivocal and unexplained despite the complexity of the issue he is propounding upon. For example, in discussing the failure of Heidegger to transcend the flaws of Husserl's phenomenological theory, he also mentions Heidegger's attraction and support of Hitler and his Fascist regime, and states: "Fascism is a desperate, last-ditch attempt on the part of monopoly capitalism to abolish contradictions which have become intolerable; and does so in part by offering a whole alternative history..." (57). It's a fascinating sentence, but Eagleton doesn't clarify or extend his one-phrase summation, so it seems a bit off the point and frustrated me not to know more about what he meant and how it applied to Heidegger's theories.
However, I determined to look up every word or concept I didn't understand and although it took me the whole summer to get through the book, light began to dawn. It was a struggle with both Eagleton's style and content, but I got through it and actually began to enjoy learning about theory. I now am quite attracted to the field of literary criticism and enjoy reading about it much more, although post-modernism is still a bugaboo. Lacan is now my new hurdle, but hopefully not for long; I find him (or those that write about him) fascinating. After battling with this subject, my advice would be: if you know anything about the field of literary and cultural theory, then Eagleton's book is probably a breeze, but if you are completely new to the discipline like me, I would choose a more traditionally organised and more plain-spoken introduction to literary theory. I would like to find one or actually many more books myself, because I find the field is so dense that a substantial amount was understandably missing in Eagleton's book- no one book could cover it all- and one could and should read considerably more on the subject.
If however, you choose to take a chance with Eagleton, because you like his style or feel up to wrestling with the man on this topic, then I think you might probably feel proud of yourself for having met the challenge and persevering. I certainly did.