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A side-splitting tour that makes it a blast to read the Western literary canon, from the ancient Greeks to the Modernists. To many, the Great Books evoke angst: the complicated Renaissance dramas we bluffed our way through in college, the dusty Everyman's Library editions that look classy on the shelf but make us feel guilty because they've never been opened A side-splitting tour that makes it a blast to read the Western literary canon, from the ancient Greeks to the Modernists. To many, the Great Books evoke angst: the complicated Renaissance dramas we bluffed our way through in college, the dusty Everyman's Library editions that look classy on the shelf but make us feel guilty because they've never been opened. On a mission to restore the West's great works to their rightful place (they were intended to be entertaining!), Sandra Newman has produced a reading guide like no other. Beginning with Greek and Roman literature, she takes readers through hilarious detours and captivating historical tidbits on the road to Modernism. Along the way, we find parallels between Rabelais and South Park, Jane Austen and Sex and the City, Jonathan Swift and Jon Stewart, uncovering the original humor and riskiness that propelled great authors to celebrity. Packed with pop culture gems, stories of literary hoaxes, ironic day jobs for authors, bad reviews of books that would later become classics, and more.


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A side-splitting tour that makes it a blast to read the Western literary canon, from the ancient Greeks to the Modernists. To many, the Great Books evoke angst: the complicated Renaissance dramas we bluffed our way through in college, the dusty Everyman's Library editions that look classy on the shelf but make us feel guilty because they've never been opened A side-splitting tour that makes it a blast to read the Western literary canon, from the ancient Greeks to the Modernists. To many, the Great Books evoke angst: the complicated Renaissance dramas we bluffed our way through in college, the dusty Everyman's Library editions that look classy on the shelf but make us feel guilty because they've never been opened. On a mission to restore the West's great works to their rightful place (they were intended to be entertaining!), Sandra Newman has produced a reading guide like no other. Beginning with Greek and Roman literature, she takes readers through hilarious detours and captivating historical tidbits on the road to Modernism. Along the way, we find parallels between Rabelais and South Park, Jane Austen and Sex and the City, Jonathan Swift and Jon Stewart, uncovering the original humor and riskiness that propelled great authors to celebrity. Packed with pop culture gems, stories of literary hoaxes, ironic day jobs for authors, bad reviews of books that would later become classics, and more.

30 review for The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner

  1. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    This is the funniest book I've read since Haven Kimmel's "She Got Up Off the Couch," which was the funniest book I'd read since Haven Kimmel's "A Girl Named Zippy." In actual fact, "The Western Lit Survival Kit" is kind of like if Haven Kimmel wrote recaplets of the entire Western canon. In some ways, Sandra Newman's book is a love letter to literature. And it's because she loves words and stories so much that she's able to take the piss out of every author and poet and book and sonnet without c This is the funniest book I've read since Haven Kimmel's "She Got Up Off the Couch," which was the funniest book I'd read since Haven Kimmel's "A Girl Named Zippy." In actual fact, "The Western Lit Survival Kit" is kind of like if Haven Kimmel wrote recaplets of the entire Western canon. In some ways, Sandra Newman's book is a love letter to literature. And it's because she loves words and stories so much that she's able to take the piss out of every author and poet and book and sonnet without coming off like some kind of prick. I chewed through the book in two days, only putting it down because I was so overcome with guffaws I thought I might hurt myself if I didn't take a break. By the time I got to the Brontes, I basically spent the rest of the book crying tears of hilarity all down my face. I couldn't figure out which passage to quote because they're all so good and I annotated so many, so I just opened the book to any old page and here's what I had highlighted: One saving grace of The Faerie Queen is that it's in orgasmically bad taste. An example: in Book III, a giantess appears (out of nowhere, like everything else in The Faerie Queen), riding through the countryside, grabbing knights by the nape of the neck, slinging them over her saddle, and carrying them off to be her sex slaves. She will make do with animals if there are no knights. She and her brother Ollyphant, being twins, were already doing it in the womb; in fact, they were born fucking.Also, after recapping all of Dickens, she turns to "A Christmas Carol" and says: "You probably know the plot of 'A Christmas Carol.' If you do not, you are a priceless resource that should not be tampered with." This book is perfect, is what I am saying.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Richard Derus

    Rating: 4* of five The Book Report: The author, a novelist and humorist, takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Western literature, from The Odyssey through Ulysses and beyond. In her fast-talking tour guide patter, she offers up a large amount of information about each era covered, a medium amount of information about notable authors and their works, and a huge heap of hilarity and opinion along the way. Helpful touches such as charts showing the “Importance”, the “Accessibility”, and the “Fun” Rating: 4* of five The Book Report: The author, a novelist and humorist, takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Western literature, from The Odyssey through Ulysses and beyond. In her fast-talking tour guide patter, she offers up a large amount of information about each era covered, a medium amount of information about notable authors and their works, and a huge heap of hilarity and opinion along the way. Helpful touches such as charts showing the “Importance”, the “Accessibility”, and the “Fun” of each work discussed, allow her readers to contextualize Western lit in a quick capsule form. Really, whether or not one agrees with the author in her assessments is sort of not the point. She has strong, well-founded opinions, and she’s obviously extremely erudite. She quite probably knows more than you do, and she’s quite probably read more than you have, and she most certainly has you whipped all hollow in the funny department. Go with her ratings, and allow her to lead you into temptation. Sorry is one thing you won’t be. My Review: Move over, Mary Roach. Here’s the *other* woman I want to marry. She’s hilariously funny, she’s devastatingly well-read, and she’s right purty, too. Reading this book felt to me like attending the most delightful cocktail party ever. No matter what conversation one dips into or climbs out of, the laughs keep coming and the knowledge keeps flowing. An example, from the chapter entitled “France and England in the Seventeenth Century: The Shallows”: “So we’re at Versailles. The flowers in the beds are changed every day for variety; there are a zillion fountains. Men wear puffy satin bloomers with tights and high-heeled shoes. They gesture gracefully using slender canes with ribbons entwined around them. It is, in a word, gay.” Yea verily, Sister Woman, it is so! Miss Thing then reviews The Princesse de Cleves, a Harlequin romance of a book by Marie-Madeleine de la Fayette, as follows: “While the setting is the ultra-cynical world of the court, the main characters are strenuously, almost extraterrestrially, noble. Two out of three of them literally die of love. While they are suffering major organ failure from their love, they remain extraordinarily polite, expressing their passions in terms like ‘If I dared, I should even say that it is within your power to make it your duty, one day, to preserve the feelings you have for me.’ To which the only answer can be: ‘My duty forbids me ever to think of anyone, and less of you than anyone else in the world, for reasons which you do not know.’ Well then!” I nearly knocked my computer off my lap three times typing that, I was laughing so hard. In the end, Mme de la Fayette earns an Importance rating of 6 out of ten, an Accessibility rating of 8 out of ten, and a Fun rating of 8 out of ten. And herein, dear Reader, the rub: I follow the logic of her Importance (higher = more) ratings, and the Fun ratings (same as Importance). It’s the Accessibility that gives me pause. An 8 rating should mean a book is…NOT Accessible? EXTRA Accessible? Somehow this part of the rating scheme didn’t jell for me, since some books I found easy are rated as hard (I think) and vice versa. Oh well, it’s a quibble really, this isn’t a textbook. What it is, is a browser’s delight. The Western Lit Survival Kit is an entire bowl of cocktail nuts, with salt, heavy on the almonds and cashews and light on those awful Brazil nuts that hurt your teeth and taste like rancid packing peanuts. At its best, it’s an entire plate of sherried cheese puffs with dilled shrimp. And like these luxury comestibles, it needs to be treated as an indulgence, read in measured doses, and allowed to exert its maximum effect on you as you savor its rich and delicious flavors. Available in January 2012. If you only buy one book that month, buy this one.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Cărți și călătorii

    I'm absolutely thrilled about this book! I dare say it is the dream of any high school or university student or, why not, of any reader who wants to go through the most important works of Western literature in a fast, pleasant and extremely funny way. I was sorry I had never come across it as a student myself, because it would have saved me a lot of pain. Let me be clear about this: not because I wouldn't have had to read the literary works myself, but because I would have read them out of pleas I'm absolutely thrilled about this book! I dare say it is the dream of any high school or university student or, why not, of any reader who wants to go through the most important works of Western literature in a fast, pleasant and extremely funny way. I was sorry I had never come across it as a student myself, because it would have saved me a lot of pain. Let me be clear about this: not because I wouldn't have had to read the literary works myself, but because I would have read them out of pleasure, not duty! This book manages to do something that some teachers never do, which is to briefly present Western literature from the beginning until the 20th century with such charm and humour, that it both arouses your curiosity and makes you feel good about it.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    I really enjoyed this book. Loved the author's sense of humor, and I always enjoy reading about the classics, whether I've read them or not. Her honesty and sense of humor actually has encouraged me to try some books I really haven't had much interest before. Fun book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    G.

    A fun review of all the books and authors I lived for as a lit major. Only Proust seems to come through unscathed. Hilarious!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Limeminearia

    This is making me giggle and giggle. I'm done and I loved it. Oh Sandra Newman, not only do you crack me up, you also make me love (some) literature and love life. You are the best.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Emily O

    If you know me, you know that I am a big classics reader, so I thought that it would be fun to get The Western Lit Survival Kit and get a few laughs out of summaries and ratings she gives. As soon as I got the book, I opened to some classic books that I'd already read, just to get a taste for how she writes and what she's like. To put it lightly, I was not pleased, and my unhappiness with this book grew the more I read. (If you don't like negative reviews, you should just stop now. You have been If you know me, you know that I am a big classics reader, so I thought that it would be fun to get The Western Lit Survival Kit and get a few laughs out of summaries and ratings she gives. As soon as I got the book, I opened to some classic books that I'd already read, just to get a taste for how she writes and what she's like. To put it lightly, I was not pleased, and my unhappiness with this book grew the more I read. (If you don't like negative reviews, you should just stop now. You have been warned.) The idea behind this book isn't bad. She has a section for each author where she gives some basic info on their biography, style, subject matter, and whatever literary movements they were involved in. Then she talks about a few of their most well-known works, and ends with a chart that rates each book by that author for importance, accessibility, and fun, on a scale of 1-10. The idea is that if I wanted to read some Hemingway, but I didn't know which book to chose, I could go to the Hemingway section, read a little about him, get a summary of some of his books, and decide which of them to read based on the summaries and ratings. It sounds fun, right? Well, while it works in theory, in practice this book absolutely fails on all fronts. Let me give you some examples. First, her summaries and comparisons of books are very often not true, or based entirely on her (very strange) opinion. You all know how much I love T.S. Eliot, so naturally I read his section to see what she would say. First of all, she doesn't even mention his plays. Secondly, she describes the Four Quartets only in terms of Eliot's religious beliefs, when any research at all would have shown her that they are definitely about more than that. Her description of the Quartets, one of the most transcendent and ecstatic poems I've ever read, and one of my favorites, ends with "Okay, it's boring." Wow, thanks for the informed and nuanced commentary. But hey, at least she says Prufrock is wonderful, right? Look, I understand. Not everyone likes T.S. Eliot like I do. Knowing this, I flipped back toward the Whitman section, in hopes that maybe he fit her taste better. She again calls him boring. Whitman, who was excited about everything, boring! She says that Whitman is best read in small doses while Dickinson is best read in large bunches, which is exactly the opposite of how the two should be read, in my opinion. She also spends 3 out of her 5 paragraphs on Whitman wondering whether or not he was gay. While that may be an interesting question, and while it is relevant to his poetry (though again she misses the fact that it's his own soul he's talking about in that one part of Song of Myself, not another person) there is not reason to spend over half of your very short allotted space on Whitman musing about his sexuality. That is just wasteful and absurd. I would hate to see someone base their poetry reading on such lopsided and sometimes downright mistaken commentary. But hey, maybe she just isn't good at poetry in general. Maybe she will make more sense when she writes about prose. Sadly, no. She completely dismisses Poe's short stories as boring. Boring, seriously? Attack the quality of the writing if you want, but they are anything but boring. She dismisses Heart of Darkness as having "prose excess" and too much "emoting," and says that Ulysses is a novel full of "bad ideas," which only works because of Joyce's personality. What? She also says that Anne Bronte's only contribution was being "the pretty one." I'm sorry, but when it comes to both poetry and prose, Sandra Newman doesn't know what she's talking about. What made her think she was qualified enough to write a book on the subject? If you want more concrete examples of why this book is entirely useless, you need only to look at the accessibility rating. I honestly don't think she knows what the word means. Accessibility should mean how easy the book is to read for people who don't read the classics as their career. How readable is the book? How difficult? Is the language old or dense? Does it take work? So, lets compare some of her accessibility ratings, and see which books she thinks are easy or hard to read, shall we? Kipling: 0 (Including the novels she said were interesting to 10-year-olds. What?) Ulysses and Finnegans Wake: 1 (No, Finnegans Wake is more difficult than Ulysses) King Lear: 2 The Sound and the Fury: 3 Macbeth: 3 W.B. Yeats: 4 (As difficult as The Four Quartets? Harder than The Waste Land?) Heart of Darkness: 4 The Four Quartets: 4 Leaves of Grass: 5 (Harder than The Waste Land and The Inferno? Really?) Romeo and Juliet: 5 Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 5 The Waste Land and Prufrock: 6 (No, The Waste Land is harder than Prufrock.) The Inferno: 6 A Tale of Two Cities: 7 The Great Gatsby: 7 War and Peace: 7 The Sun Also Rises: 8 Candide: 9 (Really? Easier than Fitzgerald and Hemingway?) Anna Karenina: 10 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: 10 Pride and Prejudice: 10 Basically, and I cannot say this emphatically enough, Sandra Newman has no idea what she's talking about. While some of her writing is humorous, her summaries of works and authors are too busy trying to be hip, snarky, or funny to bother being accurate or informative at all. Her accessibility ratings makes absolutely no sense, and her ratings for fun aren't really that much better. I absolutely dread the idea of this book falling into the hands of any students, for fear of the irrevocable damage that it might do both to their understanding of literature and to their brains as a whole. Rating: 1 Recommendations: Do not waste your time on it, and for the love of all that is good, do not give this to a student.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Book Description As subtitles often do, this book's subtitle pretty much says it all: "An Irreverent Guide to the Classics from Homer to Faulkner." As you can imagine, presenting an overview of the Great Books of Western literature is a pretty tall order. Forced to be brief and succinct, Newman still somehow manages to provide a brief author bio, a look at their notable works, and an overview of the time period in which they were writing. Along the way, she also manages to work in quite a few jok Book Description As subtitles often do, this book's subtitle pretty much says it all: "An Irreverent Guide to the Classics from Homer to Faulkner." As you can imagine, presenting an overview of the Great Books of Western literature is a pretty tall order. Forced to be brief and succinct, Newman still somehow manages to provide a brief author bio, a look at their notable works, and an overview of the time period in which they were writing. Along the way, she also manages to work in quite a few jokes. She also includes a chart that rates each work on three attributes: importance, accessibility and fun. As she notes in the introduction: "Fun" does not mean "Quality." Paradise Lost is a work of acknowledged genius. It is also about as much fun as being trapped in a freezer. In the Fun rating, I've tried to incorporate various possible sources of fun, such as the loveliness of poetry and the page-turning quality of fiction. However, it all boils down to assessing the entertainment value of the work—not the deathless masterpieceness. Each of the 14 chapters covers a different era or literary movement—starting with the Greeks and Ancient Rome, moving through times such as The Age of Reason: When People Wised Up And Started Believing What We Believe and ending up with The Messy Twentieth: Finally Over. Two timelines highlighting great moments in Western lit and the lives of the great authors are also included. My Thoughts I've been looking for a way to get a broad overview of Western lit without actually having to read too much of it, and Newman's book was a great way to do that. I tend to struggle with the classics—often finding them boring or impenetrable due to the unfamiliar language. Although I have a passing familiarity with many of the works mentioned in this book, I wasn't able to place them in context or really understand WHY they are considered one of the Great Books. Newman is a snarky guide who did a wonderful job of breaking things down to their basic level while still providing insights into the feel of a work as well as why it is important. Keep in mind, though, that this is NOT a funny Cliff's Notes. You'll get the basic idea of a book's plot and some insight into why it is important but it won't replace actually reading the book in any way. The jokey tone that Newman uses throughout the book definitely keeps the book from being as dry as some of the works it discusses, but I found her jokes uneven and sometimes forced. Still, she does a good job making light of some serious stuff and making it palatable. (For a more masterful job of making fun of the classics, track down a copy of Richard Armour's The Classics Reclassified, which is, sadly, out-of-print at the moment.) In the end, I found the book to be highly readable and educational. Here are a few of the things I took away from it: * I may actually give Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy a go as Newman does a good job of making it seem enticing ("Page for page, it's possibly the funniest novel ever," she says) despite the book being "flamboyantly difficult" and a reader needing to be "very smart." Chances are, I'm nowhere near smart enough to understand the book but since it is available for free on my Kindle, I figure it is worth a shot. *I will never ever in a million bazillion years attempt to read anything by James Joyce. (Or William Faulkner.) (Or Melville's Moby Dick.) * I've read more classics that I've remembered because I've blocked them out. In reading this book, it came back to me that I have read Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (snooze!), Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (of which I retained nothing), and several Thomas Hardy novels (of which I retain only the slightest memories). Recommended For Readers who want a fun overview of Western lit or who are seeking a guide to what classics might be worth reading

  9. 5 out of 5

    Stela

    My, my, this Sandra Newman, what a cheeky, irreverent hussy, to pleonastically put it! Daring to desecrate the Cathedral of Literature by entering it with an impertinent whistle only to deliver her Western Lit Survival Kit with no respect whatsoever for the holy names inside. How all its saints must have shuddered, including the Shakespeare God. Obviously, nothing is sacred anymore. Think of all those authors you have always tiptoed around, whose oeuvres you did not run the risk to open out of a My, my, this Sandra Newman, what a cheeky, irreverent hussy, to pleonastically put it! Daring to desecrate the Cathedral of Literature by entering it with an impertinent whistle only to deliver her Western Lit Survival Kit with no respect whatsoever for the holy names inside. How all its saints must have shuddered, including the Shakespeare God. Obviously, nothing is sacred anymore. Think of all those authors you have always tiptoed around, whose oeuvres you did not run the risk to open out of awe and/ or fear of not being the ideal reader they expected you to be, becoming the laughingstock of this brazen, sparkling American who sanctions mercilessly all books that don’t provide enough fun in reading. Moreover, forcing me to take a walk down memory lane, to remember myself from the age of seven, from that moment when I took a book in my hand and discovered I could read in my mind, since then not to let one single day pass without reading at least ten pages, but usually much, much more. Why? Obviously, because I was having fun. When has this changed? I suppose when I decided to build a career on them books, by studying Letters. In a moment, to read what I liked irreversibly changed into reading what I had to. This habit is so ingrained now, that when I like a book too much, I look at it suspiciously, subconsciously considering its accessibility a fault. It took Sandra Newman’s essay to figure out that I am nothing more than a literary snob. And to finally admit that, yes, people, reading should be having fun. Even if it is about masterpieces, especially if it is about masterpieces. And this essay is a funny, although never superficial guide into oeuvres so great everybody knows about, but nobody reads anymore because they are not credited with fun. And many of them have it in loads. If you know where to look, that is. Judging by its diachronic structure, you could consider The Western Lit Survival Kit a sort of History of Literature, devoid (youpi!) of its stiff academic approach. In my profession, I happen to have read many of these Histories, always prepared to endure those slightly boring incursions in the Fiction Timeline. Sandra Newman’s book has been an appropriate revenge for all those long and funless hours of study. Indeed, the author encourages us in the Introduction to enter Western literature “like an amusement park”. However, if you think that her book is a mere rejection of designed masterpieces you are sorely mistaken. Very often she points out why you should read them despite their apparent imperviousness, which makes the three (once four) columns of rating (Importance, Accessibility, Fun, once Evil) an interesting and accurate sum-up of the almost every (sub)chapter. I cannot help but give an example of the original way the essay approaches literature that I picked in the chapter about the Antiquity, in which I found (and how proudly my heart was pounding!) the mention of “fucking Romania” (I chose, of course, to consider the epithet rather endearing than insulting). While describing the consequences the exile had on Ovid and on my country, the contrast between his most precious desire – to leave it forever, and our most precious desire, to keep him forever, is smartly highlighted: … the thick-skinned Romanians have adopted Ovid as “The First Romanian Poet.” Ovidiu is a common first name for Romanian boys. This seems more reasonable when you consider that, while Ovid hated Romanians, he probably also fathered a slew of them. The entire book consists of this kind of observations that go through various ranges of irony (from light to Socratic and even cosmic) to show us that any work, any subject can be subjected to the humoristic or ironic approach without falling into superficiality and triviality. Let me outline some examples that made my day, in the hope they will make yours too.  The Europe’s stepping out from Antiquity into the medieval period is imagined accompanied by a huge, unanimous sigh of relief from all those who were afraid to “be plunged directly into the Renaissance, forced to rediscover the Greeks before they had managed to forget them.”  The recent attempt of the literary historians to change the name of the Renaissance period into “Early Modern Era” in order to deny that its main trait were the rebirth of classical knowledge, is poorly received by the author, who stubbornly sticks to the old name, either because it has a classy, French resonance and because the second one reminds her of modern furniture, inviting the gruesome image of Cervantes in an Eames chair.  The progressive replacement of the historical characters with magical creatures in the chansons de geste naturally led to a progressive replacement of the reality with fiction “a process familiar to people who watch Fox News”.  The information that in Paradise Dante is guided by Beatrice, for Virgil not being a Christian cannot enter it, is accompanied by the heartfelt exclamation “Virgil doesn’t know how lucky he is”, followed by the explanation that because of the usual heaven activities (souls forming crosses or roses, spelling out words and singing) he would have thought he assisted at “the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics”.  The mystery plays, the first forms of drama in England, took scenes from the Bible, clumsily written, but with some “bawdy humor and slapstick alongside a bloodthirsty religiosity. In short, they are much like Greek drama, if Greek drama had been written by stupid people”.  Stendhal’s claim that The Princess of Cleves was the first French novel, is received with mocking incredulity: “This might have surprised Madame de Lafayette, since it was her third”.  Irving’s work (Rip van Winkle, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) is so monotone and unassuming that it “reads like Valium” (I strongly and totally and irrefutably agreed with this one).  The praise from the heart regarding the style full of deadpan humor of Jane Austen’s masterpiece, is followed by the somehow diminishing hypothesis that all her other novels were “a way of consoling yourself for having finished Pride and Prejudice.”  Finally, the author, taking pity on your struggling with the 20th century poetry, gives you the following useful advice: “If the poem made sense to you, in fact, you’re not getting it. You should get some cool person to explain it to you, so the poetry stops making sense to you too”. Apart all these smart reading notes, flippant reviews and unexpected reading keys, you will found many inspiring quotes, perfect to make reading even more appealing, like these ones: Paradoxically, the most interesting works of literature are often also the most boring. * For modern readers, Milton’s masterpiece might more aptly be named Consciousness Lost. * Sade writes like the Ayn Rand of sexual violence. * Short poems are always a gift to modern people, who typically have no attention span and do have cable. * Transcendentalism is Romanticism as preached in a Massachusetts church. * Anne was the pretty one. This, sadly, is her main contribution as a Brontë. * The great grandfather of depressing Scandinavians was the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen. And the cherry on the top of the cake: Basically, so many lines from Hamlet have become part of the language that the only fresh material is in lines like “He’s coming!” and “Ha ha!” There’s nothing to be done about this, just as we can’t change the fact that some symphonies now evoke ads for insurance products. This book left me with contradictory feelings. On one hand, I stopped feeling guilty for not having read some famous works – for it provided me with some strong arguments to defend my ignorance, on the other hand it lengthened my to-read list with the name of others – for it made impossible to me to ignore them anymore. Therefore, I think it is only right she pass through the same evaluation she so nonchalantly gave, following the same criteria she used. I hereby decide: Importance 7 Accessibility 9 Fun 10 Evil 10 P.S. From all the works credited with 10 importance (and there are over 60 of them) only two received the perfect, all around ten: Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina. The fourth column is not to be taken into account, for it was reserved only for If. Consequently becoming my returning gift to the author.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Heather

    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 a 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. Read my full review...

  11. 4 out of 5

    Audra (Unabridged Chick)

    Don't let that rather pedestrian first line put you off; this is an irreverent yet avowedly geeky look at the canon of Western European literature. Beginning with the ancient Greeks and ending with the Modernists, Newman provides pithy summaries of famous works with humorous ratings (by importance, accessibility, and fun). Ranking books is pretty subjective, no matter how objective the criteria, and I'm honestly not usually a fan of this kind of non-fiction (I like forming my own opinion, thank y Don't let that rather pedestrian first line put you off; this is an irreverent yet avowedly geeky look at the canon of Western European literature. Beginning with the ancient Greeks and ending with the Modernists, Newman provides pithy summaries of famous works with humorous ratings (by importance, accessibility, and fun). Ranking books is pretty subjective, no matter how objective the criteria, and I'm honestly not usually a fan of this kind of non-fiction (I like forming my own opinion, thank you!). But Newman's sense of humor is much like mine -- geeky, sarcastic, feminist, wry -- and so reading her was a bit like riffing with my nerdy Lit major girlfriends. However, you don't need to be an armchair academic to appreciate Newman's thoughts on the greats of Western literature. Her pithy biographies and summaries give a snapshot of a particular work or writer, and a suggestion of why one should read or not read said work/writer. I started marking hilarious/amusing/outrageous passages to quote and then found that I literally had a tab on every page. Here's a taste of Newman's writing style; she's discussing Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther: The success of this novel was staggering. Across Europe, Werther became a role model for youth. Everyone wanted to be like this whining reject. Scores of young men killed themselves in imitation, until Geothe was ready to go around killing them himself. For the rest of his life, Goethe was revered as the man who created Werther, even after had written far greater books, invented colors, and created the world in six days. (p151) According to her own criteria, she rates The Sorrows of Young Werther as having a 10 in Importance, a 9 in Accessibility, and an 8 in Fun. I'm inclined to side with her opinions since she rates The Scarlet Letter with a 9 ("alas!") for Importance, an 8 for Difficulty, and a 4 for Fun. (My thoughts exactly!) I was so amused and inspired by Newman's thoughts, I'm going to do a reading challenge based on the authors and books she mentions. (More on that to come.) Writers on writers is a favorite genre of mine, and book nerds on books is a sure way to get me to read more books (so brava, Newman!). A super fun, snappy, and easy-to-digest guide to Western literature, that will provoke nods of agreement and a few gasps of horrified disagreement. And lots of laughing. Way more fun than my 10th grade English class!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jill Elizabeth

    The subtitle for The Western Lit Survival Kit says it all: “An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner”. I’ve tried reading and/or flipping through anthologies like this before. Usually, collections of short précis or summaries of books/theories/philosophies sound much better than they actually are. Every author/compiler seems to think they are more witty and urbane than everyone else on the planet. Mathematically, of course, this isn’t possible. And the books bear that mathemat The subtitle for The Western Lit Survival Kit says it all: “An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner”. I’ve tried reading and/or flipping through anthologies like this before. Usually, collections of short précis or summaries of books/theories/philosophies sound much better than they actually are. Every author/compiler seems to think they are more witty and urbane than everyone else on the planet. Mathematically, of course, this isn’t possible. And the books bear that mathematical impossibility out. Most of the time, books like The Western Lit Survival Kit read like a mediocre student’s collection of seventh grade book reports. Still, somehow I remain an eternal optimist about this type of book, despite the fact that I am a die-hard pessimist (or at best cynic) about all other things in life, and despite the fact that I am nearly always universally disappointed as a result. So imagine my delight when I started reading this one and found that it did, in fact, deliver on its promise! Sandra Newman’s summaries and analyses – as well as her scales rating the importance, difficulty, and fun of the various works she describes – are concise without being curt, interesting without being overdramatic, and surprisingly fun to read. She covers a wide variety of works by the standard canonical western world authors, and sprinkles in fun facts, odd tidbits of insight and snarkiness. There is also just enough evidence of her apparently insatiable appetite for authors many of us cannot stomach to make the book a fun and useful reference guide. I’m not in school anymore. I don’t need crib-notes on the plot, meaning, or purpose of literary works. I’ve read enough to be able to hold my own in conversation about most of the great works – through reference even if not through direct reads. Still, there are authors that I’ve never quite been able to get through at more than a superficial level, as well as some whose point I’ve never been able to fully grasp. Newman’s guide is a great way to get a better sense of the content and significance (at least to the world of literature, even if not to the world of Jill-Elizabeth, teehee) of these. And it is pretty fun – and funny – too.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Meaghan

    This book accomplished all the things it set out to do: it was very funny, it was very informative, and it did inspire me to go out and read some of the literature it describes. (Not ALL the literature, though. I am now more than ever determined to stay away from James Joyce.) There are a lot of guides to classic books out there, and this is probably better than most. It would be a good companion to Newman's other book Read This Next: 500 of the Best Books You'll Ever Read , or Michael Dirda' This book accomplished all the things it set out to do: it was very funny, it was very informative, and it did inspire me to go out and read some of the literature it describes. (Not ALL the literature, though. I am now more than ever determined to stay away from James Joyce.) There are a lot of guides to classic books out there, and this is probably better than most. It would be a good companion to Newman's other book Read This Next: 500 of the Best Books You'll Ever Read , or Michael Dirda's Classics for Pleasure .

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jackie

    As someone always looking to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, this was helpful and a fun read in letting me know which gaps can stay unfilled. I did think the 20th century got somewhat short shaft though – she indicates she’ll only cover writers who have an established “critical consensus”, but would that not include, say, Waugh or Forster? Anyway, minor complaint.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    One of those rare "lit professor after office hours", "get a few cocktails in em and you'll hear what they REALLY think about Milton", "fun and witty" "romps" through the Western Canon that is actually, it turns out, fun and witty (also, witty and fun).

  16. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    Fun, particularly as I've probably read about 80% of the books and authors profiled. I like the snarky tone but wonder if that may turn off readers who arent well versed in Western Lit.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Zeke

    Informative, smart and completely irreverent.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Rosemary Atwell

    An entertaining and surprisingly informative guide perfect for bedtime reading. I had a lot of fun with this one.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Allan

    If the study of the Western literary canon were a standup routine it would be called The Western Lit Survival Kit—and it would be very funny![return][return]Sandra Newman’s overview of 2500 years of literary aspirations is an irreverent guide to the classics, from Homer to Faulkner. I know this because it’s clearly stated on the cover. Harold Bloom must be spinning in his grave (or he will be if he’s not there yet...I forget which).[return][return]As far as the Greeks and Romans are concerned, t If the study of the Western literary canon were a standup routine it would be called The Western Lit Survival Kit—and it would be very funny![return][return]Sandra Newman’s overview of 2500 years of literary aspirations is an irreverent guide to the classics, from Homer to Faulkner. I know this because it’s clearly stated on the cover. Harold Bloom must be spinning in his grave (or he will be if he’s not there yet...I forget which).[return][return]As far as the Greeks and Romans are concerned, the humor practically writes itself! Apparently the first thousand years of “literature” is all about sex.[return][return]There’s a lot of ground to cover so Newman doesn’t spend too much time on any one author — a page and a half for Cervantes, a page and a half for Marlowe ... Shakespeare of course gets his own chapter — each of the plays is made fun of and ridiculed but ends up with high marks for “best play ever”. (Newman can do this because, in fact, the plots of most of Willy’s plays are ridiculous and yet brilliant in their execution.[return][return]After a brief fling with the metaphysical poets and the puritans we are slingshot into the 17th century where nothing really important happens — Pepys, Dryden, the first female playwright of any notice, Aphra Ben and on to the court of the Sun King and Moliere. And so on to the next century, the brilliant 18th, the Age of Reason. Difficult to lampoon everyone but Newman keeps it light, goofy and, as always, full of sex. In England Defoe, Fielding, Swift and my personal favorite, Laurence Sterne, were all on the best-seller list. In France there was Voltaire and Diderot...it was heady times.[return][return]The Romantic poets are given some serious attention. Wordsworth “...continued to walk around thinking about what cows looked like in the rain.”, Samuel “Kubla” Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Tennyson. Also Southey.[return][return]Some time is spent on the continent, making fun of Goethe and Pushkin and so on to America where Emerson, Thoreau, Poe and Whitman are all maligned in an amusing way. More serious time is spent on Melville (the genius of Moby Dick) and Twain (Huck Finn). At this point the novel is taking off in its modern form and the Early Realists take over with profiles of Austin, the Brontes, Dickens (four pages) and Thackerey (a paragraph).[return][return]The chapter on the Twentieth Century starts with eight pages of “les poetes maudits” who were all 19th century but felt more like 20th century — absinthe, syphilis and violent death led by the punk rogue Rimbaud. The book ends with a nice appreciation of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and a not so nice decapitation of Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway.[return][return]And so, as it turns out, everything in the canon is about sex — at least until the discovery of America where there is no sex until The Scarlet Letter, and that doesn’t really count. The Greeks were oedipal, the Romans perverse, the English neurotic and lusty and the French just weird (remember de Sade?)[return][return]Sandra Newman has successfully driven a 10-ton truck through the white man’s literary canon and has had a lot of fun doing it. Some of my personal favorites have been left out (Smollett, Gissing and Trollope) but I’ve learned a thing or two. Perhaps I’ll use some of it at the next hipster party I attend. As if![return][return]On a side note, I hate the cover of this book! It sets it firmly in the Self-Help, Dummies, How-to universe and immediately marginalizes it to the back shelves where such books are housed. Bad marketing idea. In the movie version, the role of the brilliant author will be played by Sarah Silverman. Or maybe she’ll play it herself. I’m good either way.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Patty

    I was an English major in college. I had been steered away from Mathematics (which is a whole other story), I knew I wanted to be a librarian and I liked to read. What choice did I have about my major? However, I managed to graduate without reading many of the classics. So I am always fascinated by books like The Western Lit Survival Kit. I wonder what I missed. Newman not only gave me info about the books I missed but also reminded me of some great works that I had enjoyed and not thought about I was an English major in college. I had been steered away from Mathematics (which is a whole other story), I knew I wanted to be a librarian and I liked to read. What choice did I have about my major? However, I managed to graduate without reading many of the classics. So I am always fascinated by books like The Western Lit Survival Kit. I wonder what I missed. Newman not only gave me info about the books I missed but also reminded me of some great works that I had enjoyed and not thought about since college days. I like her sense of humor and her rating system works well, in my opinion. All in all this was a book that I enjoyed and I may return to it to pick out some titles to read in the future. I recommend this book to those of us who graduated from college without reading all the great classics; to people looking for interesting, free books for their Kindle or Nook and to those folks who have read these books and want a good laugh. Using Ms Newman's own rating system, I give her a five for importance (in the grand scheme of life this is not too too important), a ten for accessibility and a 15 for fun. I had a great time with this book.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Elyza

    Have you ever read a book that made you feel smart and dumb at the same time? Well, The Western Lit Survival Kit made me feel this way. However when I say the book made me feel dumb I do not mean that the author made me feel this way. No the book got me excited about literature. The author’s vast knowledge of literature can be a little intimidating though. So many times before I’ve picked up a “classic” and thought it would be too intellectual or over my head. The author, Sandra Newman, breaks Have you ever read a book that made you feel smart and dumb at the same time? Well, The Western Lit Survival Kit made me feel this way. However when I say the book made me feel dumb I do not mean that the author made me feel this way. No the book got me excited about literature. The author’s vast knowledge of literature can be a little intimidating though. So many times before I’ve picked up a “classic” and thought it would be too intellectual or over my head. The author, Sandra Newman, breaks these books down and shows you what is worth your time and what you shouldn’t bother with. Her book is a history of literature but also comes with little histories about the authors. She shows you their “human” sides making them more approachable. Also she is hilarious! I laughed outloud throughout the entire book. I am glad I own and read this book. I will continue to use it as a reference when I get a craving to read a classic.

  22. 4 out of 5

    JoLynn

    An overview for high school/college students or those who want help deciding what is important to read from the Western Canon. The author does an excellent job of synopsizing different eras and summarizing the important works of each time period. She grades each book on importance, accessibility and fun (enjoyment probability). Background information on authors' lives and impact of each book provide many intriguing tidbits. However, as the title states, this is 'An Irreverent Guide to the Classi An overview for high school/college students or those who want help deciding what is important to read from the Western Canon. The author does an excellent job of synopsizing different eras and summarizing the important works of each time period. She grades each book on importance, accessibility and fun (enjoyment probability). Background information on authors' lives and impact of each book provide many intriguing tidbits. However, as the title states, this is 'An Irreverent Guide to the Classics'. The author's attempt to compare different works to modern cultural and political examples I felt was hit-or-miss, and occasionally downright jarring. I appreciate that it is done to interest younger or reluctant readers to give these great works a try, but I would have enjoyed the book quite well without many of the jokes. Overall though, a very enjoyable read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mark Donnelly

    I recommend! Newman writes with authority, humor, zeal, and precision. Her book is exceptionally brilliant. Why? Because it covers the history of literature since Homer...only the ones that are important. It was so interesting, I found myself reading into the wee hours, and I found myself becoming a better person, writer, and lover because I read this book. And I highlighted through the process what classics were important to me and my future. I suspect if you are interested in literature, you'll I recommend! Newman writes with authority, humor, zeal, and precision. Her book is exceptionally brilliant. Why? Because it covers the history of literature since Homer...only the ones that are important. It was so interesting, I found myself reading into the wee hours, and I found myself becoming a better person, writer, and lover because I read this book. And I highlighted through the process what classics were important to me and my future. I suspect if you are interested in literature, you'll be interested in Newman's book.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Cthulhu Youth

    Like a Horrible Histories guide to classic literature. This is a fun and easy book about difficult books. I was hoping for an excuse to avoid some of the classics, but instead Newman's loving descriptions have given me a longer list of classics to read. We'll see whether this momentum will keep up after 6 weeks of chipping away at In Search of Lost Time.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Caitlin

    I've always had a nebulous connection to the world of classics as taught by our fine educational systems. Throughout school I found that more often than not I had already read whatever we were going to read in class and had often read some relevant literary criticism. This is because I am a book nerd and I always have been. I went to college with the notion of majoring in English (that's what book nerds do, right?), but after my first few classes I knew that wasn't the direction I wanted to go. T I've always had a nebulous connection to the world of classics as taught by our fine educational systems. Throughout school I found that more often than not I had already read whatever we were going to read in class and had often read some relevant literary criticism. This is because I am a book nerd and I always have been. I went to college with the notion of majoring in English (that's what book nerds do, right?), but after my first few classes I knew that wasn't the direction I wanted to go. The sad fact is that many (not all) programs in Literature are full of people who don't really like to read all that much. Instead, the sport is clubbing to death anything "classic" that you might ever have had fun with like a baby seal. Seriously, English departments are littered with these sad little corpses. I've never read classic literature because I had to (although sometimes it has been a requirement). I read it because I like to - good stories, good writing, a chance to have great discussion with the larger world of readers - what's not to like? It's almost always been fun (and when it wasn't, I didn't finish it). I've had the opportunity to read many things written in other times and styles and to be transported and brain-stimulated by them. In some cases you get to add in the macho factor (come on, you all know we all have it) - saying that you've read about Ulysses (both Homer and James Joyce; plus the Steely Dan song, Home at Last from Aja - for extra credit) gives you a certain level of credibility. If you've read these things and can have an intelligent discussion about it then you are The Man (or The Woman, if you prefer). Enjoy all that and you're probably a book nerd and that is fine thing to be. The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irrational Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner is a fun, factual, and irreverent look at some of the major authors in classic literature. In my head it's called the Lit Wit Kit. It's a great book for dipping into to pick your next classic read (all those people out there gearing up for classics reading challenges want this book) or to find the author's assessments with which you disagree (also great fun). When you disagree you get to yell at the book and that's another sport that I highly recommend. Of course Shakespeare is the best thing since sliced bread for all the reasons suggested, but the author forgot one. It's not just that he's been read, discussed, and argued about. It's also because his plays have been produced on stage (and in film) pretty much continuously. This component of the evaluation of his writing is a huge part of what drives our overall view of him and I think it's important to remember that. His work is timeless, flexible, and remains relevant and those things make him our lovely Bill who cradles us in his arms and takes us on the ride of our life. I love the author's rating system of Importance, Difficulty, and Fun. If you're intimidated by an author, pick something high on the fun level and low on the difficulty level and it'll get you started on their works. Some authors you will never ever like (I hate Jane Austen, for instance), some books you will never ever get through (I can't read Moby Dick), but you'll like lots and will read more and your universe will continue to expand. I have this next to my bed and continue to peruse, look things up, and think about what I'm reading. I expect I'll continue to do so. One criticism of the book is the lack of an index (this makes me bang my head on my desk), but this may be remedied in the actual published version that releases today. My other criticism is that the author cannot seem to contain her snarkiness. Many times she crosses the line between witty and humorous and the world of mean and I am so much better than you. This isn't hard to ignore, but it is there. A fun read with plenty of food for thought and no seal clubbing. Thank you, Ms. Newman!

  26. 4 out of 5

    Florinda

    I’m (probably) in the middle of my “middle-age years,” and I’ve definitely been feeling the “so many books, so little time left (SMBSLTL)” pressure, particularly when it comes to classic literature. Outside of educational settings, the Western canon hasn’t played much of a role in my adult reading life--mostly by choice. And now, how likely is it that I’m going to spend some of that little time on books I’ve either had little interest in reading, or have actively avoided reading, for lo these ma I’m (probably) in the middle of my “middle-age years,” and I’ve definitely been feeling the “so many books, so little time left (SMBSLTL)” pressure, particularly when it comes to classic literature. Outside of educational settings, the Western canon hasn’t played much of a role in my adult reading life--mostly by choice. And now, how likely is it that I’m going to spend some of that little time on books I’ve either had little interest in reading, or have actively avoided reading, for lo these many years? Let’s be honest--it’s probably not going to happen. I appreciate the cultural and historical literacy value in knowing about those books and their influence, but I don’t necessarily feel the desire or need to experience many of them for myself. And apparently I’m not alone. As Sandra Newman notes in the Introduction to The Western Lit Survival Kit, “Even people who don’t want to read the Great Books will read about the Great Books.” Newman really does mean to encourage reading of the Great Books themselves, although she’s well aware of the obstacles. As she acknowledges in the Introduction, “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.” Over the course of fourteen breezy chapters, Newman hits the literary milestones of over two thousand years with discussions of authors, works, and literary trends and styles. As might be expected in this format, most topics don’t get much space (and only Shakespeare gets a full chapter to himself), but there’s a surprising amount of depth in some sections, particularly as the book moves into last couple of centuries. The standout feature of the book is the charts that Newman uses to summarize each discussion, in which she assigns works ratings from 1 to 10 for Importance, Accessibility, and Fun (an assessment of how much enjoyment the reader may expect from the experience). The charts are an excellent tool for making those SMBSLTL choices, particularly when all you want is to sample a book or two within a particular style or by a certain author. The rating criteria can be considered in combination or individually, since they recognize that different things matter to different readers. Some readers may prefer a less Important book that’s more Fun, for example. Others may be primarily interested in the books with the highest combined ratings (that would be Pride and Prejudice, which scores a perfect 10 across the board--and which is one canonical work I have read). Newman’s tone throughout the book is In keeping with her contention that literature should be a pleasure. I found reading The Western Lit Survival Kit to be satisfying, thought-provoking, and a lot of fun. Some bits, especially in the early chapters, were laugh-out-loud funny, although perhaps less so if you’re not fond of snarky humor. Personally, I’m quite fond of snarky humor, so it was just one more reason for me to like this book very much. The Western Lit Survival Kit is going on my keeper shelf--I just might be making use of some of those charts. On its own scale, I rate it: Importance - 8 Accessibility - 10 Fun - 9

  27. 4 out of 5

    E.M. Epps

    I adore this book. If you are considering getting an English Lit degree, why not just memorize this instead? You'll save time, you'll laugh more, and you'll still be able to chat knowingly about Restoration Drama when it comes up (as it does). Oh, did I mention you'll laugh? You will. A lot. I sometimes strongly disagree with Newman—and you probably will too—but (as should be clear from my blog) I prefer literary criticism with personality rather than some riculous pretense of objectivity. I rea I adore this book. If you are considering getting an English Lit degree, why not just memorize this instead? You'll save time, you'll laugh more, and you'll still be able to chat knowingly about Restoration Drama when it comes up (as it does). Oh, did I mention you'll laugh? You will. A lot. I sometimes strongly disagree with Newman—and you probably will too—but (as should be clear from my blog) I prefer literary criticism with personality rather than some riculous pretense of objectivity. I really can't recommend this book highly enough, to those who are interested in this sort of thing. SAMPLE PARAGRAPH The other Jamesian keynote is the convoluted sentence. These sentences are a sort of literary Great Wall: while other, similar, structures exist, none are quite so long with so little apparent reason. (In fact, some sentences in The Golden Bowl can be seen from space.) Multiple feelings and perceptions are layered in each of them, in a syntax that seems to flow in every direction but forward. To give you an idea, here's one from The Ambassadors: "Nothing could have been odder than Strether's sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then." You will never catch Henry James writing "The dog barked." It will always be: "Had the dog not been, from the moment at which she entered the room in the perplexed flush of expectation in which she had been left by the hints of Mr. Westcott, barking..." *** This review originally appeared on my blog, This Space Intentionally Left Blank .

  28. 4 out of 5

    Yvonne Marjot

    This is a seriously good book. I bought it hoping it would help me to blag my way through literary parties (it will) but there’s much more to it than that. It’s laugh-out-loud funny – to witness, I read several sections out to my teenage sons and laughed each time, while they stared at me blankly and exchanged worried looks. It’s very well and entertainingly written. I started reading mid-afternoon and was interrupted on page 218 (Joseph Conrad) by complaints from the cheap seats, as it was near This is a seriously good book. I bought it hoping it would help me to blag my way through literary parties (it will) but there’s much more to it than that. It’s laugh-out-loud funny – to witness, I read several sections out to my teenage sons and laughed each time, while they stared at me blankly and exchanged worried looks. It’s very well and entertainingly written. I started reading mid-afternoon and was interrupted on page 218 (Joseph Conrad) by complaints from the cheap seats, as it was nearing 7pm and I hadn’t yet made the dinner. Sandra Newman approaches her subject with wit and a considerable fund of knowledge, which she imparts with a light hand. The book is full of erudite moments and memorable remarks. I especially liked her description of Mark Twain as “a nineteenth-century Jon Stewart with added down-home Americanness”. I’m trying to imagine Jon Stewart with extra Americanness. The mind boggles. I have only one complaint: at the back of the book is a comprehensive chronological list of the authors and works Newman identifies as belonging to the Classics. Lacking, however, are the accompanying page references, which would have enabled me to quickly pop to the author I most wanted to revisit. Perhaps this is a clever trick to make me read the book again? I recommend this book if you think you should read the classics and don’t know where to start, or if you studied some in school and now the thought of revisiting them fills you with dread (in this case, you may find Newman right there beside you, empathising). And, I cannot deny, it’s an excellent cheat’s bible. Five stars and worth every one.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Margot Bigg

    This is not meant to be a serious study of literature, which should be obvious from the title. It's a fun, quick read although the contrived humour is sometimes a bit irksome--since it's not really that funny, especially when she waxes poetic about speculations of certain writers' sexual orientation. I found it a bit strange is that once we get past the classical era, she seems to focus nearly exclusively on English (by that I mean British/Irish/American) and French lit, with a bit of Italian a This is not meant to be a serious study of literature, which should be obvious from the title. It's a fun, quick read although the contrived humour is sometimes a bit irksome--since it's not really that funny, especially when she waxes poetic about speculations of certain writers' sexual orientation. I found it a bit strange is that once we get past the classical era, she seems to focus nearly exclusively on English (by that I mean British/Irish/American) and French lit, with a bit of Italian and Russian stuff thrown in for good measure.Towards the end, she seems to be rushing to finish the manuscript (at least it reads like she wrote it linearly). She leaves out a lot of important writers from the past two centuries--where's Rilke? Barrett Browning? Shaw? Orwell? Tolkien? The existentialists? And why leave these people out but include Nerval? That said, the book is a fun read and has some interesting anecdotes about how authors lived and how people lived at the time--many of which are made up or embellished for the sense of trying to sound funny. I can't stress enough that it's not meant to be a real "survival kit" and probably isn't a fun read for people who aren't already at least somewhat familiar with major works of literature. Literary snobs who take themselves too seriously probably won't enjoy it much either. Most others will find it a fun, quick, lighthearted and somewhat goofy look into the lives of some of our best-known writers.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Abbi Dion

    This book is one of the funniest things I have read...ever. So funny it's almost too funny. Two examples: "In ancient Greece, poetry was thought to be inspired by one of the nine "Muses," who were the goddesses of the arts. Thus, the Iliad begins with an invocation: "Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles." This line is by far the most famous in the book, because it is as far as most people get. Therefore, "Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles" is a good thing to quote when the Iliad comes up in co This book is one of the funniest things I have read...ever. So funny it's almost too funny. Two examples: "In ancient Greece, poetry was thought to be inspired by one of the nine "Muses," who were the goddesses of the arts. Thus, the Iliad begins with an invocation: "Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles." This line is by far the most famous in the book, because it is as far as most people get. Therefore, "Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles" is a good thing to quote when the Iliad comes up in conversation. (Oh, it will. Don't get complacent.) While quoting, adopt a dreamy look, as if recalling many pleasant hours spent in a persimmon bower drunk on heavenly verse." From the intro to Emile Zola: "Naturalism is a form of realism that consists entirely of unhelpful thoughts. Here all human desires are base, and we are slaves to these desires. It is only justice, then, that we are doomed. Science proves this, sorry. Still, enjoy the moment, because the world is getting inexorably worse. Also, there's no heaven. People with a history of mood disorders should avoid naturalist works at all costs."

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