Don't be put off by the bloodstain on the cover.
When The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism appears on your book list for the first time, you may get a sinking feeling. If you don’t already have that feeling, then by all means get to sinking. This tome (guaranteed to be more tome-ly than any text you have purchased to date) is a ten pound, nearly 3000 page monolith that may be the most expensive thing you ever buy as a graduate student in the humanities. (And if you aren’t a graduate student in the humanities, back away slowly.) While the NATC may cost you half your monthly TA stipend, and it may endanger your life every time you leap onto the subway with that ponderous weight in your backpack, rest assured that it is a sound investment in your future as a critic and scholar. I will endeavor to explain why.
First let’s talk about what this book isn’t. (With all those pages, there will be plenty to say about what it is.) The NATC is not an introduction to theory, and it is even less an introduction to literary theory. Notice, “literary” is not even in the title. And the only place you’ll find “introduction” is in the introduction, which only takes up thirty-some bible-thin pages of the thing. Though you can’t expect to be prepared for what follows by reading these pages, if you really are new to this theory game then by all means read the introduction! It is a very cursory discussion of “What is Theory?” and of theory’s current place in literary and cultural studies, followed by an even more cursory wham-bam list of schools and methods in theory. The schools and methods are probably what you’ve heard of. Feminists. Deconstructors. Cultural critics. Etc. While these entries are in a sort of chronological order, the descriptions are short and the list format does not help the newbie to understand the relationships between all of these schools and methods. If you have a true introductory text, the kind with schemas and charts and things, that might be a nice supplement as you wade through the issues and lists. Donald Keesey’s Contexts for Criticism is a good place to start, and Jonathan Culler’s Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory is even better. While, in the end, schemas don’t always make perfect sense or allow for the nuances that differentiate certain theories, they are handy when you are in the face of the NATC with no prior exposure to semioticians and linguists, New Critics and Formalists (“What’s the difference?!”) and their ilk.
One other feature of the book that could be considered introductory material is each critic’s or theorist’s headnote. Again, some background is necessary to see how the critics fit together (because now you are dealing with individuals and their thoughts, not over-arching, sometimes nebulous schools), but each headnote can nearly stand alone because of the amount of biographical and critical information there. Always read the headnote for any reading you have been assigned. Your professor probably assigned the headnote along with the reading, but if not, read it anyway. Be the teacher’s pet. The headnotes do not give away the juicy bits of the selections themselves, but set nicely a reader up for what is to come.
You will notice, especially at the beginnings and ends of headnotes, that some names appear in ALL CAPS. This means the person referred to is somewhere in that book, and you should go look them up if you want to know more about the connection between, say, Hegel and Marx. However, unlike the obvious Hegel-Marx connection, sometimes these associations are tenuous and even dubious. JAQUES DERRIDA appears in Plato’s headnote, but we cannot learn much about Plato from Derrida. Derrida deconstructs a Platonic dialog, so he made it in. They even go so far as to include the relatively minor dialog in Plato’s section, to justify the nudging into the twentieth century (they want you to look in the back of the book!). If they really wanted to throw in a responder to Plato, MARTIN HEIDEGGER would have been more apt. But he’s not cool anymore. So when you read these ALL CAPS names, just be sure to have a few grains of salt handy.
While NATC is by no means an introductory text, it is a hit parade of works that you may be assigned in your early years of advanced literary study. All of the biggies are in there: Laugh of the Medusa, Poetics, Biographia Literaria, Of Grammatology, and so on. You will have nearly everything you need. They even put them in a sort of historical order for you, by year of the critic’s birth. Also included, however, are some tidbits you’ve probably never heard of. The newer stuff follows the current trends in literary theory as observed by the editors. Some of it will get nixed from the next edition, and some will be immortalized either by its own merit or by simply having a place in the NATC.
Of course, every time a young upstart gets his or her gender theory article included, some hoary old fellow will be shaved off the other end of the book to make room. The early criticism, therefore, is the choicest cuts. You can think of the book as an open faced sandwich. The aged meats are on top and the fresh pieces of bread are on the bottom. It remains to be seen which breads will soak up the juices of history and remain edible, and which will turn to soggy mush. While the quality of these later selections is mixed, with the latest edition you will at least stay on top of the trends in literary theory. But if you are in a theory class just for fun (what?), or if you are a stalwart Classicist or Romantic or the like, don’t bother keeping up with editions. The oldies but goodies are in every one, and you might have even more oldies in the older editions, as each new edition will land some of them on the chopping block to squeeze in new essays on buzzy new topics. Anyway, with the savings on a used book, you will be able to buy a few more TV dinners at Aldi. Or even a roast beef sandwich.
With such a huge volume, navigation is always an issue, and you may worry about getting lost at sea. Luckily the crack Norton team has anticipated your seafaring reticence, and has given you multiple options for charting a course through the book. The first table of contents is in historical order, just like the entirety of the book. Thumb to the very first page with anything meaningful on it for the traditional “Contents” pages (although you can find all sorts of interesting things on the preceding pages if you’re into that sort of thing). On page xix begins the “Alternative Table of Contents,” which gives you multiple useful options for digging up articles that may be of interest to you or useful for your projects. Methods and schools are there, for sure, but also genres, historical periods (since they are in order but not periodized in the main text), and issues in theory. The issues section is especially handy for many paper-writing tasks. So even if you don’t read even a quarter of the book as assigned readings, you may find at least another quarter of it can be used as your bibliography on any literary topic. (Hollow out the other half and use it to store your gin.) Another way to navigate the book is by the indices, which again give you options. You can look up authors and titles, or you can browse subjects.
Once you find a nice chunk of entries that work for the authors, titles, or subjects you are interested in, look at the bibliographies. If you get nothing else out of this book, look at the bibliographies! Everything in the NATC came from somewhere else, and it will tell you where to find the selection, along with more material than you could ever want to read. What’s more, they evaluate the books for you, and annotate many of them.
So the NATC will not answer all your questions about theory, and it will not make you an instant expert (although the presence of the book on your desk may elicit many astonished "Holy SHIT you read THAT?!" looks). If you need it for a class, then you need it. Suck it up and buy the thing, and make it your own. Put colorful post-it flags on the sections you love, write angry marginalia on the ones you hate, design your own alternative table of contents, paste color coded heuristics into the headnotes to help you put it all into perspective. I won’t say you’ll never regret buying the thing. But sometimes, you’ll be really glad you did.