The rest of the books on this list are purpose built guides to literary theory – but I thought I’d open things up with a glossary! Want super sharp summaries of concepts and movements to wrap your head around things quickly? Glossaries provide the most condensed form of summary possible – the art of the glossary is the art of brevity. Perfect for avoiding waffle. Check out “A Glossary of Literary Terms” by M.H. Abrams. 

Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction

This very short book often appears on high school reading lists, and is also a great option for the time poor budding literary theorist! Budding … that word should probably be retired. This book does exactly what it says on the tin. You know what though, with a title like this you’re probably nearly as well served with a quick wikipedia search. Still, if you want a little more authority behind your research check this one out by Jonathan Culler! 


Sure, why not? Students were once advised not to depend on things that appear online because they have no … validity. But actually wikipedia is a very reliable source these days and a wonderful place to start. If you’re working on a piece of serious literary criticism or something that is being assessed by an institution, definitely only use wiki as a point of departure. Verify all facts elsewhere, but dive in here for hours of free entertainment courtesy of Jimmy Wales. 

Living Online Handbooks 

Check out this living online handbook of Narratology: There are authoritative sources that are available online, which are often updated more frequently than print books, or even e-books. This site is called ‘living’ because it is updated on the reg, and encourages commentary from its users, which may influence its contents. Not all online sources are unquotable! Check the credentials of the authors!

Traditional Textbooks

Ultimately, the most authoritative sources, and the ones you want to be quoting from to nab your HD, or land your review in a reputable newspaper, are the old school textbooks like Terry Eagleton’s “Literary Theory: an introduction”. This text rocked the literary world with Eagleton’s trademark wit and cynicism, and charted the growth of the literary theory in the academy, and the challenges it has faced. Other excellent textbooks include titles like “The Norton Anthology of Literary Criticism”. It’s a weighty monsters, but there’s a thirty page intro that gives a concise overview of things!