I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner by Sandra Newman
Published by Gotham Books on January 2012
Genres: Nonfiction, Literary Criticism
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Remember having to read all of those classics in high school and college? If you weren’t an English major, it may have felt like torture (heck, even as an English major reading some of those books may have felt like torture). Oftentimes, reading the classics is made out to be something that everyone should do, and if they don’t, they should feel super guilty about it. I’m one of those people who thinks that reading the classics is important not only to understand the history of literature, but also because it gives us a good look at the history of our societies. For the most part, I enjoy reading the classics. On the other hand, I can understand why some people would rather watch paint dry. I was lucky enough to have teachers in both high school and college who made reading books from the Western canon fun, but not everyone is so lucky. When thinking about classic literature, lots of people associate these books with words like “dull,” “boring,” and “sleep-inducing.”
But as Sandra Newman says in the Introduction to The Western Lit Survival Kit,
Literature is a pleasure. It should be emotionally satisfying, intellectually thrilling, and just plain fun. And if it isn’t, you shouldn’t feel bad about not reading it.
This book treats Western lit like an amusement park. It offers a guide to the rides, suggesting which ones are fun for all ages, which are impossibly dull for all ages, and which might take a lot out of you but offer an experience you simply can’t get anywhere else.
And she’s right. Reading should be a pleasure. Whether the gratification you receive from reading a book is instant, or whether it takes some work to reap the benefits, reading literature should never be a chore. If reading a book makes you feel like you’d rather be getting your teeth pulled, then it’s time to put the book down. In The Western Lit Survival Kit, Newman covers most of the important authors of the Western canon from Homer to William Faulkner (as stated by the book’s subtitle) by giving a compact description of each author’s most important/well-known works, and by rating each of those works on a scale of 1-10 in three categories: Importance, Accessibility or Difficulty, and Fun. Newman’s descriptions are given in a very down-to-earth way and are interspersed with lots of jokes. No author seems to be safe from her witty criticisms. Newman has set out to make reading about these works fun, with the hope that it will change some people’s minds about what they perceive as the dullness of classic literature.
For the most part, I would say Newman succeeded. Reading The Western Lit Survival Kit was a nice, relatively amusing way of learning more about the classic literature I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, and it was interesting to compare our opinions about the books I have read. There were times when I felt like there were too many jokes, and there were times when her jokes fell flat (I mean, if I don’t really know much about the book she’s describing, how am I going to understand the jokes she’s making about it?), but I enjoyed the laid back nature of it. This book is really for two different groups of people, as Newman explains in the Introduction:
For readers who have already ingested a generous sampling from the Great Books, this book will offer a unifying perspective, fresh insights, and cheap jokes at the expense of your favorite and least favorite authors. For the reader approaching Western literature for the first time (or for the second time, having been badly burned in school) this book will help you judge which authors are really worth attempting.
Having read the book, I agree with that statement…mostly.
Personally, the only real issue I took with Newman’s book is her treatment of Henry David Thoreau. She practically covered the guy in eggs and rotten tomatoes, and she did it all in four short paragraphs. Whenever I see someone with such negative opinions of Thoreau (and it’s always about the same things), I think to myself, “Did this person and I read the same Walden? Did they pay attention and understand it? Do they have any other knowledge of Thoreau beyond this particular book? Have they read a biography or anything?” But, she’s entitled to her opinions. Unfortunately, once I read the small section on Thoreau, I began to question her opinions on the books I haven’t read and realized that I should be taking her opinions in The Western Lit Survival Kit for just that…opinions. When we talk about literature in a casual way, much of what we say about it is subjective. I love Walden and I think Thoreau is great, but there many people who have read the same book and have come away thinking he’s a selfish, cranky recluse. I would never be able to convince the majority of those folks otherwise. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: if you’re interested in this sort of thing, read Newman’s book…but don’t let her talk you out of giving any of these books a chance if they sound interesting to you. Keep Newman’s ratings and thoughts in mind, but don’t let them discourage you from testing the literary waters of a book that you think you’d really like to read. If you start reading something and fifty pages later you start to feel like you’d rather gouge your eyes out with a plastic spoon, then just put the book down and give it up–at least you can say you tried and formed your own opinion of it.
Overall, I enjoyed reading The Western Lit Survival Kit. I liked the laid back nature of it, and some of the wisecracks made me chuckle out loud. Newman’s brevity did not stop the book from being informative (I learned quite a bit) and many of the classics she discussed have been added to my wish list. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to start reading the classics but doesn’t know exactly where to start, or to anyone who already enjoys reading the classics and would like to read Newman’s witty criticism of them.
(To learn more about Sandra Newman, please visit her website.)
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