Top positive review
Wonderful book; lousy 21st Century production values
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on March 5, 2020
I first read this book roughly 40 years ago. The presentation of each chapter's main passages in both their original language and in English translation opened up many linguistic horizons to me, even when I couldn't yet read the originals so well or at all; and the range of authors opened up many literary ones. The patience, detail and humanity of Auerbach's approach were amazing, even if his larger objectives are considered old-fashioned by today's standards. It's a long book that requires close reading, but I was really sorry to reach the end.
One need not care about the book's creation narrative, that it was written while Auerbach was in wartime exile in Istanbul, to appreciate the book itself. Some 21st Century critics have claimed that there were both a strong community of exiled scholars and many library resources that had been moved to Istanbul in that period, insinuating that Auerbach was in a cushier situation than suggested in his story of how the book came to be. As if his material circumstances would be determinative of his state of mind; this is a red herring.
Nor need one accept Auerbach's goal of an "objective" approach to literary history to be inspired by the sensitivity of his readings. Through his close attention to layers of meaning in specific words and phrases, the book gave me a practical and lively appreciation of a philological approach -- something I later found useful both in law practice and in teaching about non-literary topics. It also deepened my enjoyment of other recreational reading.
The wide range of sources pulled in by Auerbach operates as a great suggested reading list from the classical Western canon. Just remember that it was written in the 1940s, so it's too early for many of the additions to that canon prompted by late 20th Century movements such as post-colonialism, feminist critical theory, etc.
I still have my copy that I bought in the early 1970s: I've carried it with me as I've moved up and down seaboards, back and forth across a continent, and across an ocean. So that copy has become something of a memento. I recently decided to re-read the book, but wanted a clean copy in which I could freely pencil notes. The new copy arrived yesterday (in March 2020) -- but what a disappointment.
The book's cover price is remarkably stable, considering the inflation from the 1970s to today. But the quality has plummeted. The book today is more than 1 cm thicker than the old one, due to cheaper paper. The ink is gray, not black. The text has been photographically enlarged. One might think that this would be a blessing for my aged eyes, but it's not: the edges of the letters are pixellated, and far from crisp. Moreover, the margins of the pages have shrunk. This not only makes it more difficult to write comments, but it also makes the typographical distinction between Auerbach's commentary and his specimen texts less salient. As for the cover, the reproduction of a painting by Caravaggio manages to be both pale and muddy at once.
Books are, among other things, functional tools, and their design is important. No thought was given to that here, aside from cutting corners for profit.
If you're especially interested to read Edward Said's introduction, added in 2003, the publisher has made this available for free online. As for Auerbach's wonderful book, I would recommend that you look for a used copy of an older edition. If you prefer not to read a previous owner's notes, highlights and underlines, find one in 'very good' or better condition. The cover of my old copy had a reddened image of some architectural details (maybe from an engraving?) -- I suspect such copies will have the older, clearer typography as well.