A far-reaching encyclopedia of literary geography offers valuable insights into the role of place in poetry and prose.
As edited by Houston (Reading Joan Didion, 2009, etc.), this study delivers a comprehensive A-to-Z exploration of more than 100 real and imagined settings across classic and contemporary literature, from Jefferson, Mississippi, in William Faulkner’s novel Absalom! Absalom! to the interior of a single room in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The selections were based on the “most popularly taught selections in high school and college,” and Houston says the book is “ideal for high school classes and introductory college-level courses,” although she believes more advanced students can appreciate its analytical depth. Houston’s introduction answers the question “what is literary geography?” and discusses key spatial theorists and the role of place in poetry and prose. The encyclopedia also features an appendix that elaborates on the literary importance of significant locations, from Paris to England’s Lake District. A detailed bibliography offers valuable recommendations for further reading. The format of each entry is clear and concise, opening with a brief overview of the text, such as: “Jane Eyre is Charlotte Brontë’s short novel about a woman who takes a position as governess at the estate of a wealthy landowner, Edward Rochester.” The entry then zeroes in on the spatial significance of the “British Moors”: “the landscape is also a scary place for Jane growing up because of regional folk tales. Locals tell stories about various ghosts or specters that inhabit the moors.” The tenor of such entries is suitable for high school classes, but more advanced readers may see them as simplistic. Similarly, headings such as the “Cultural Geography of Class Equality” may appear intimidating to some younger students. Houston might have benefited from addressing the encyclopedia to a particular group of students rather than attempting to appeal to all. Still, it’s a testament to the breadth of this book that it examines contemporary titles such as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close alongside The Odyssey, and browsing its pages no doubt will provide a vital springboard to further research.
Meticulously compiled, this is a thought-provoking literary aid.