I like to have things explained in a nutshell, so I was intrigued when I saw The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner by Sandra Newman that comes in at two hundred eighty pages. That’s a fair number of pages, certainly, but to cover three thousand years of literature? Not bad! Ms. Newman has written several books, including How Not to Write a Novel and Read This Next as well as numerous short fiction and nonfiction pieces published in magazines. She has also been a professor of literature and writing at Temple University, Chapman University, the University of Colorado and The New School, so I trust she knows what she’s talking about.
I am of two minds about this book. When I first sat down to read it, I felt like Dorothy Parker. That is to say, I thought perhaps the book was “not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force.” Maybe it was just my mood, or perhaps I made mental adjustments before my next session, because I found it much more fun the rest of the way. That said, I find it lazy to drop “f-bombs” in writing (or conversation), so I do wish she had found it less necessary to use vulgarisms as often as she did. Additionally, your tolerance for this book may be contingent on how you feel about the writing style of the “. . .for Dummies” books, as they have a similar snarky tone. Irreverent? Darn tootin’.
As advertised, it does run the Western canon from Homer through Faulkner including novelists, short story writers, and poets, dividing the literary periods into thirteen chapters, from “Greece: Cradle of Greek Civilization” to “The Messy Twentieth: Finally Over.” The chapter titles alone give you a sense of the tone of the book. Each chapter covers various authors of the period and has boxes delineating the Importance, Accessibility, and Fun of each of the authors works (main ones, at minimum) on a scale of 1 to 10. So, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus gets a 9 for Importance, 6 for Accessibility, and a 7 for Fun while Milton’s Paradise Lost receives a 10 for Importance, a 4 for Accessibility, and a 4 for Fun. In addition to discussing the works, Newman also covers the private lives of the authors. Most of the really “irreverent” material comes from those entries, but the books, plays, and poems themselves come in for more than a little ribbing.
Let me close with a sample to clarify the tone of the writing. Here’s the author on Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton:
“This turgid Gothic, set in a poor New England town, has so little in common with Edith Wharton’s other novels that one suspects her muse was cheating with the mailman. If you love The House of Mirth, you will hate Ethan Frome. In fact, if you don’t love The House of Mirth, you will hate Ethan Frome. If you have the ability to hate, you will hate Ethan Frome. It has everything that made The Scarlet Letter go down like a brick: heavy-handed color symbolism, a pointless frame story, dreary characters, cold weather. In the climax, the protagonists attempt suicide on a sled, yet it is not played for laughs. Basically, if you’ve read Ethan Frome, and you enjoyed it, you’re asleep and dreaming. Soon you will wake up in a world where you too hated Ethan Frome.”
So, if you like sarcasm and want to cover a lot of the classic works of fiction since the dawn of time and don’t mind some vulgar language, this may be just the book for you!