Sandra Newman’s “The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner”

It says “irreverent” right there on the cover, but maybe they should bold it. Put it in all caps. Underline it. Because I don’t think I was prepared for a tenth of The Western Lit Survival Kit’s sassiness. Sandra Newman, it’s safe to say, has nothing short of an acerbic wit.

In some ways, I was the ideal audience for a book like this, going in. I have read a pitifully small sliver of the canon, and I know that many of the books I could read to bulk up my literary chops would only be digested with a mind to say I’ve read more of the canon. I really just don’t think I’d enjoy Moby Dick, for example, just as so many of the first chapters of other classics mentioned in Newman’s Survival Kit went so dishearteningly unenjoyed. Not because they’re poorly written, and not even because I’d find them boring; I just wouldn’t find myself connecting. So it’s really pretty perfect for me that Newman goes to the trouble of not only giving me abbreviated synopses of so many classics, but also a scale that rates each book in terms of Importance, Accessibility, and Fun. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that she outlines the larger literary movements themselves (Old Comedy, Realism, Romanticism), being careful to mention which talking points you can use to sound more learned at cocktail parties (though I object, on principal, to learning anything purely on the basis of a potential cocktail party I might never, in fact, get invited to – maybe getting that pesky MFA would up my chances?).

Zeus was notorious for taking the form of just about anything he could think of in order to get girls to sleep with him – a bull, a swan, a shower of gold. Apparently it never occurred to him that girls might want to sleep with someone who looks like a Greek god.

The Survival Kit positively bursts with moments like this.  Whether it’s through obviously modernized paraphrasing of characters’ dialogue or wordplay in the sidebar commentary, Newman is committed to the idea that her spin on CliffsNotes will be a different sort of summary: one that fully admits (rather more than CliffsNotes and SparkNotes do) that there might be a damn good reason you haven’t read some (or most) of these before. With the three-rating scale she’s devised, then, she lets you know whether you should really reconsider and try to slog through a particular volume (because it’ll be well worth it, like the poetry of John Donne), or whether, truth be told, she didn’t find a whole lot about the book redeeming, either (as with Mark Twain’s The Innocent Abroad). Whichever the case, Newman does not condescend to her reader. 

I did have trouble with her occasional condescension to the authors, however. Take this paragraph from the Shakespeare chapter. I wanted to read up on the plays of his that I’d never read or heard much about before, so I flipped to Cymbeline, and this is what I got:

…The princess Imogen marries secretly, her husband is exiled, a trickster convinces the husband Imogen is unfaithful, and seventeen other things happen, in no particular order. At a high point in the follies, Imogen has faked her death and gone into the wilderness in men’s clothing. There the first people she meets turn out to be her long-lost brothers. Some scholars have seriously suggested that Shakespeare was just bored and fooling around.

Well, okay, but moments like this don’t quite constitute the stuff of a guide. I know hardly any more about Cymbeline now than I did before, and it just seems gratuitous to mention it for the sole purpose of saying, “Shakespeare got bored sometimes.” We all get bored, but I know I’m not spouting sonnets in my boredom! Again, “irreverence” is a concept best bolded on the cover, just so any reader knows what they’re in for.

So I suppose in its sacrifice of content for cattiness, I sometimes wasn’t the ideal reader of this book, because I thought the jokes often obscured the actual literary aims. But you know what? A high schooler won’t think that. Hell, I’m sure I’m sure my own high-school self would be downright grateful to receive this book as her only birthday or Christmas present. There, I think, is Newman’s key demographic: the set that is smack dab in the midst of slogging through all this stuff, with more pressing matters like athletics and puberty distracting them, but with every English teacher they encounter hanging the threat of a good college over every grade and every book. These kids want to do well, but – and I sympathize – simply aren’t in a place to connect to the material. A sixteen-year-old trying to earn her driver’s license isn’t going to have the resources to derive intrinsic enjoyment from every classic piece of literature she’s assigned, often with too little time to finish it by the due date. Newman’s book is a perfect companion for students like this, not so that the Survival Kit will replace these forays into the canon, but rather serve as a perfect complement to them, a boost, a laugh, an incentive. Any such reader can appreciate how Newman speaks on their level, with the intention of teaching and entertaining her audience in equal measure. It reads like a fast-paced nonfiction novel, and leaves you, as Newman hopes for her reader, “with insights into this great tradition, and with the hunger to read some of the books described here.”

Note: some of the books, not all. We’re not earning our doctorate here. We are delving into an exciting history of storytelling, and we’re doing so at our own risk. It says it right there on the cover: it’s a game of survival. And I like the idea of a world in which we can’t function unless we know something, some small thing, about the greats that came before us. Don’t you?

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3 thoughts on “Sandra Newman’s “The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner”

  1. Robert Clear says:

    Sounds like an interesting read. I hadn’t heard of this book before, but anyone who takes a light-hearted approach to Homer is worth a look!

  2. I’m glad that you enjoyed this one (minus a few little things) – it sounds like a fun and fascinating read! Thank for being a part of the tour.

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