Repository for literary interpretations?
March 7, 2014 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Where can I go to find publicly accessible (preferably online) and well-thought-out basic interpretations and commentary on books? I don't mean reviews, and I don't mean ultra-scholarly theoretical or historical work. I mean commentary and explanation. For example, if I just read The Trial and I wanted to know what some of the standard opinions about its meaning were, where could I reliably go?
posted by shivohum to Work & Money (4 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I always thought CliffsNotes or Sparknotes were the go-to for this sort of thing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:51 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is still nothing online that comes anywhere close to the technologies and institutions that the book world has developed for this purpose.

The standard scholarly-publishing word for the book designed to deliver this kind of thing is "companions" — such books are often titled in the form The X Companion to Y where X is the press and Y is the author or the specific work in question. The exact point of such a book is to introduce the unfamiliar reader to the range of interpretation and the historical context (though in practice of course they're uneven and one of the most common failure modes is over-scholarly inside baseball).

Also, you can look for books about teaching specific books and authors even if you're not going to teach them. The MLA has an Approaches to Teaching series that's really useful to get a sense of the range of opinions about what's worth thinking about a specific book or author.

Another place to spend some time is looking at student-oriented editions — series like the Norton Critical Editions and Broadview Editions package texts with introductions, commentary, notes, and other kinds of apparatus designed for exactly this purpose.
posted by RogerB at 12:56 PM on March 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

My public library has databases of literary criticisms aimed at high school students (so, not scholarly but not some yahoo on the internet). They are free with a library card and accessible to any computer with internet access.
posted by saucysault at 2:18 PM on March 7, 2014

There is a reference source for exactly this. Gale publishes collections of literary criticism in several series, each of which focuses on a time period. *Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism*, for example, collects academic (but accessible) excerpts of responses to literary works. Each entry is usually organized around an author and two or three works ( if memory serves).

Other series include *Contemporary Literature Criticism (CLC)* and other collections focused on other eras, centuries, and there's one on Shakespeare alone.

I used to love browsing these, because, as your question is hoping for, they'd give you a sense of the sweep of responses to a particular work. Often you'd be able to read responses that directly debate one another.

You can find bound copies in most university libraries and many good public libraries, in the reference section. Gale has made this available online, and many public libraries will make their database available, but I don't like the online interface nearly as much because the results aren't curated and organized in the way the entries in the bound volume are. Your search results in a list of full articles. It's more like searching the MLA, and, interestingly, reveals what's lost in the power of online, digital research which can just yield up an ocean of material.
posted by Philemon at 8:05 AM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

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