As the beginning of the first university term of the academic year is fast approaching, it seemed a good moment to blog about these nifty little tomes. Publishers Icon* have a series of 'Introducing ...' guides which make an excellent starting point for getting your head around literary theory as an undergraduate. They are graphic guides not unlike the '...for beginners' series and as such provide a visual representation of the complexities of theory. I have been sent three to review, Critical Theory, Foucault and Freud, but there is an enormous range of use to anyone wrestling with literary or cultural theory including Postmodernism, Derrida, Marxism etc.
Literary theory can be such a shock to the system: after A levels enjoying Shakespeare or Jane Austen, the convoluted dryness of this kind of non-fiction can seem contrary to what drew you to study literature in the first place. Literary or cultural theory is complex and nothing is going to make it simple, but these guides provide another way into the subject, another means of contriving hooks on which to hang all the new information with which you are bombarding your brain.
Introducing Critical Theory: A Graphic Guide by Stuart Sim and Borin van Loon roughly takes one concept per page or double spread and attempts to summarise it. There are cartoons and other graphics but the sentences used are no shorter than standard theorizing I'm afraid! One of the wonderful things I first discovered inside is a family tree of cultural and critical theories from the Enlightenment to the late twentieth century. This is the first time I have seen anything or anyone render so neat the relationships between, for example, J F Lyotard, 2nd wave feminism, the French Revolution, neuro-psychiatry, postcolonialism, Umberto Eco, Utopian socialism, Russian formalism and so on. As to the rest it is truly a dip-in style of book with intense compact segments of information.
I don't think that these pocket sized guides are enough on their own, but alongside the inevitable Reader (often Dennis Walder's Literature in the Modern World or David Lodge's Twentieth Century Literary Criticism: A Reader or Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh's Modern Literary Theory: A Reader ) that is no doubt on your reading list, and a good traditional prose introduction such as Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton, then these guides will be invaluable to clarify and reinforce the new-to-you concepts and ideas.
I also found Introducing Critical Theory: A Graphic Guide excellent as a refresher having not read much theory over the last few years. It is a neat reference book having a good glossary and a rather shorter index which gets you to the heart of each concept very quickly. As such I would have been glad of it as I embarked on my MA too.
If funds stretched then I would consider acquiring the more specialised guides to one theory or theorist. Beyond a basic run-through of psychoanalytic theory as an undergrad I have not looked at that area of theory much as I specialised elsewhere but Introducing Freud: A Graphic Guide by Richard Appiganesi and Oscar Zarate was a quick and entertaining way back into this area for me. There is more detail here than in Introducing Critical Theory, several pages being dedicated to the development of each aspect of Freud's work or to his patient studies, such as Anna O, and the conclusions drawn. Again there is an index and a very brief little glossary.
To summarise, my ideal basis of a theoretical library would be:
Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents by Dennis Walder (but check your reading list; if another is recommended get that only, you don't want two)
Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton now in its 25th anniversary edition
Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler. Approaches everything very differently to Eagleton so an excellent back-up to that. Read them both together and things start to make sense!
Introducing Critical Theory: A Graphic Guide by Stuart Sim and Borin van Loon
And lastly if you've room in the budget The Icon Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought also by Stuart Sim which is sadly out of print but is excellent and, relative to the nature of the subject, quite an easy read.
You can browse a selection of my own bookshop stock on the subject here.