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Reading Old Books: Writing with Traditions

Reading Old Books: Writing with Traditions

by Peter Mack


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A wide-ranging exploration of the creative power of literary tradition, from Chaucer to the present

In literary and cultural studies, "tradition" is a word everyone uses but few address critically. In Reading Old Books, Peter Mack offers a wide-ranging exploration of the creative power of literary tradition, from the middle ages to the twenty-first century, revealing in new ways how it helps writers and readers make new works and meanings.

Reading Old Books argues that the best way to understand tradition is by examining the moments when a writer takes up an old text and writes something new out of a dialogue with that text and the promptings of the present situation. The book examines Petrarch as a user, instigator, and victim of tradition. It shows how Chaucer became the first great English writer by translating and adapting a minor poem by Boccaccio. It investigates how Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser made new epic meanings by playing with assumptions, episodes, and phrases translated from their predecessors. It analyzes how the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell drew on tradition to address the new problem of urban deprivation in Mary Barton. And, finally, it looks at how the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, in his 2004 novel Wizard of the Crow, reflects on biblical, English literary, and African traditions.

Drawing on key theorists, critics, historians, and sociologists, and stressing the international character of literary tradition, Reading Old Books illuminates the not entirely free choices readers and writers make to create meaning in collaboration and competition with their models.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691205151
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/23/2021
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,041,375
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Peter Mack is professor of English at the University of Warwick. His books include A History of Renaissance Rhetoric, 1380–1620; Rhetoric and Reading in Montaigne and Shakespeare; and Elizabethan Rhetoric. He is a fellow of the British Academy, a former director of the Warburg Institute, and (with Rita Copeland) general editor of the forthcoming five-volume Cambridge History of Rhetoric.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction: Ideas of Literary Tradition 1

Chapter 1 Petrarch, Scholarship, and Traditions of Love Poetry 27

Chapter 2 Chaucer and Boccaccio's Il Filostrato 56

Chapter 3 Renaissance Epics: Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser 97

Chapter 4 Reading and Community as a Support for the New in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton 136

Chapter 5 European and African Literary Traditions in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow 169

Conclusion: Writers' and Readers' Traditions 195

Notes 209

Select Bibliography 227

Index 233

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"In this stimulating, erudite, and impassioned defense of literary tradition, Peter Mack shows how authors work to transform existing materials and narratives into something new and challenging. Writing with equal verve and insight on Chaucer, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Mack reminds us of the need to read carefully, widely, and deeply, and to embrace a republic of letters that moves beyond familiar notions of the nation and the canon, the literate and the oral, and class and identity."—Andrew Hadfield, University of Sussex

"Exploring the advantages and disadvantages of tradition as a tool for thinking about literature, this humane, intelligent, and valuable book reveals Peter Mack's deep understanding of literary systems, and it is written with great lucidity."—Colin Burrow, All Souls College, University of Oxford

"In this enlightening and compelling book, Peter Mack energizes our assessment of the importance of literary tradition with a sophisticated discussion of its creative power. The result is a lovely, elegant book."—Marjorie Curry Woods, University of Texas at Austin

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