Mimesis is one of those titles that everybody talks about so much that you begin to get the idea that to not have read it is some horrible mark against you, like having a third eyeball, or, even worse, a copy of Shift: A Novel (Gate of Orpheus Trilogy) in your hand. But then you actually look at this brick of literary criticism, and you begin to think that it’s one of those books that people more often claim to have read than actually read.
But no. While I’m not going to go so far as Borges did with his praise of Dante and declare that to not read Mimesis “is to submit to a strange asceticism,” I will say that this is a very enjoyable book. And in fact, in a short epilogue Auerbach shows himself to be a true forefather of creative criticism when he declares that–far from an impediment–the fact that he was cut off from a proper library while writing Mimesis and couldn’t conduct rigorous scholarly research was probably the most important reason that the book came out as good as it did.
Once you get going in it, Mimesis is not that hard of a read, and it is essential. The book is basically Auerbach’s history of realism in Western literature, starting with the Odyssey, passing through the Bible (and if you read nothing else of this book, read the famous first chapter, where he contrasts the narrative strategies taken by each of those books–essentially the two paths of realism in Western lit), then through Augustine, medieval French literature, and finally on to names that will be more familiar to most of us–Cervantes, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Woolf, Proust.
The book is an amazing work of literary history–it’s a cogent, blow-by-blow, heavily illustrated argument for how modernist realism developed throughout the ages. Auerbach chronicles it step by step with books that epitomize (or in fact made possible) each innovation in literary realism. As if that were not enough, it also features some wonderful close readings. You read it as much to hear what Auerbach has to say as to see how he looks at a text–what he deems important, what sets him off–and then you (should) begin to look for these things in your own reading.