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Review: ‘The Western Lit Survival Kit’ by Sandra Newman

Review: ‘The Western Lit Survival Kit’ by Sandra Newman post image

Title: The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner
Author: Sandra Newman
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2012
Acquired: From the publisher for review as part of a TLC Book Tour
Rating: ★★★½☆

Review: Just about every English major has to take some version of a survey class as a freshman or a sophomore — a look at the major authors and works in the Western (British and American) canon. Although there are many critiques of the canon (it’s not inclusive, the author aren’t relevant, the books are boring…), the point of studying the classics as an English major is to get a good basis for where our major literary traditions came from and how they make an impact today. At least, that’s what I took from my English major.

Another good thing about a survey class is that tackling some of the major classics can make reading classic  literature seem less intimidating. I don’t especially love reading William Faulkner or T.S. Eliot, but having read them in a class where I was guided through helped make me more confident I can take on those books myself (if I feel like it, which, admittedly, isn’t that often).

For people without that background, the classics can seem intimidating, boring, or both. Sandra Newman, author of The Western Lit Survival Kit, argues that reading the classics has shifted from being an activity we do for fun to an activity with Greater Meaning and Significance:

Even people who don’t want to read the great books will read about the Great Books. In fact, reading about the Great Book is now a votive act, like buying a gym membership although you never go, or separating your recyclables before jumping in the SUV.

To combat that sense of the classics as a chore, The Western Lit Survival Kit offers a compact, stand-up comedy look at Western canon that explains why these books are important, what the books are about, and which books are worth reading and why. Covering the Romans all the way up to contemporary American authors like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Western Lit Survival Kit is a good book to grab for a light-hearted and unpretentious look at the Great Books.

One of the things I liked most about the book was Newman’s rating system. After many of the discussions of an author or time period, Newman offers a 1 to 10 rating of the Importance, Accessibility, and Fun of each of the books she mentions. The ratings are both a useful way to decide what particular Jane Austen book you might want to grab first and a way to compare how you feel about the classics to how Newman rates them (Pride and Prejudice, for example, received a perfect score of all 10s). Being able to compare Newman’s ratings with my own scale was a really helpful feature of the book.

However, the book has a pretty uneven tone. The first few chapters are funny to the point of being exhausting. Reading it was like being at a stand-up comedian that never tells stories that lead to punchlines or pauses a minute to take a drink. Or maybe like sitting in a college class with a professor more suited for talking about the classics in a segment on The Tonight Show or The Daily Show  While that’s great for awhile, after the first chapter I had major reader fatigue. A book that is only a series of punchlines about books — even the Romans and the Greeks, which take some humor to appreciate — gets tiring.

Luckily, by the time Newman gets to the 18th Century, the English Professor comes out a bit more and the humor of the book gets balanced with a more serious (although never boring) consideration of the books and authors being covered. Newman suggests reading reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, explains Alexander Pope compellingly, and gives a good run-down of the kind of people who might want to actually read Ulysses. I really liked the book after Newman seemed to calm down, but the first part got to be a bit of a test of my reading endurance.

In the end, I think the book works best when Newman balances her academic moments with a sense of amused pragmatism, understanding that in addition to all the serious reasons one chooses to read the classics, reading should also be fun. One example of this is her aside for what she calls “The Boredom Threshold”:

It’s a curious fact that the more challenging a work of literature is, the more likely the reader is to fall asleep face down in its pages.  Conversely, even the most scornful reader of Dan Brown effortlessly stays awake through his books. One might think that when you gave your brain a lot of challenging notes to untie, it would be more engaged and fascinated than when it is announcing triumphantly that one plus one is two. Alas, that is so not the case.

Paradoxically, the most interesting works of literature are often also the most boring.  This is because, as you give you’re brain more and more things to do, the chances of giving it something it doesn’t feel like doing increases exponentially. Eventually, the grumpy brain shuts itself off, leaving you drooling into the pages of The Divine Comedy, While the brain waltzes off to have a dream about having sex with the person who lent you the copy — and who will now never sleep with you when she gets her drool-laden book, with the comment that, um, you liked page one. The brain, let’s face it, doesn’t care about us.

Do not cave in to the demands of this organ. It is only jealous because we are better-looking than it is.  Ask yourself: who is boss around here? Answer yourself: I, I am boss.Remember, if you let the brain get the upper hand, other organs may follow its lead, ultimately ending in a situation where you can’t sleep with anyone, or go to the bathroom.

Also, some day, the brain will thank you, because reading boring-interesting literature will make it faster and stronger, and more able to reference Dante when it is trying to get the upper hand on the other brains. Or, actually, the brain won’t thank you, because that’s what these ungrateful brains are like. But never mind, soon we will be able to replace them with computers, at which time, furthermore, The Divine Comedy will be a painless twenty-second download.

I like that passage because it shows both a sense of humor and a sense of understanding about how an average reader may feeling about tacking a great work of Western literature. When the punchlines get spaced out a bit, The Western Lit Survival Kit presents the classics in a way that makes them seem accessible and interesting enough to spend time reading.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Care January 2, 2012, 8:13 am

    This sounds wonderful! I bet I would appreciate this very much – and it wouldn’t require me to finish in one sitting so I can avoid the fatigue issue, perhaps. I do believe and value reading some books not because I would ‘enjoy’ but that I can ‘get’ references in popular culture, etc. Which is why I want to read Moby Dick someday despite my fear of it being a slog. Anna Karenina, too. I know people love it but I have yet to get past that boring farming section. I need to a guide that says which pages are must and which chapters to skip.

    • Kim January 4, 2012, 10:08 pm

      This would be a very easy book to read just a bit at a time, or dip in to explore different authors. I read The Odyssey for exactly that reason, feeling like I wanted to get the references and whatnot. This one made me excited to pick up some other classics that I had some misperceptions about.

  • softdrink January 2, 2012, 3:07 pm

    Now I’m both intrigued and a bit scared…which is only fitting, since that’s how I feel about the classics, too.

    • Kim January 4, 2012, 10:10 pm

      I think Newman would appreciate feeling intrigued and scared about her book and the classics. I think the Accessibility factor she uses to rate books is a great one for picking out books to ease into an author or time period.

  • Christy (A Good Stopping Point) January 2, 2012, 4:23 pm

    That excerpt from The Boredom Threshold is fantastic.

    • Kim January 4, 2012, 10:10 pm

      Isn’t it? That was one of the moments when I thought, “Yes! This book is right on my wavelength!”

  • Trisha January 2, 2012, 7:38 pm

    I’m betting all this would do for me is add to an already humongous list of books I need to read. 🙂 I do like the idea of humor though.

    • Kim January 4, 2012, 10:11 pm

      Oh yes, that is a major problem from reading the book. I added a whole list of classics I want to go try… Pride and Prejudice the first among them. I sort of can’t believe I’ve never read that book.

  • Gwen January 4, 2012, 4:49 pm

    I almost bought How to Read a Book by Adler this week, but hated that it was so ummm, old. This sounds like exactly what I was looking for. (and new!)

    • Kim January 4, 2012, 10:12 pm

      If you’re going to try this one before buying, read the chapter that has Alexander Pope. I had a very specific moment reading about him where I felt like the book hit the tone I was hoping for. That section is more representative of the whole than the first two chapters are. I hope you like this one!

  • Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours January 6, 2012, 12:39 pm

    Thanks for being part of the tour Kim!