Publisher: Gotham Books, 2012
Genre: Non-Fiction, Humor
Where I Got It: LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program
Why I Read It: I wanted an amusing book that would give me a good grounding the classics
My Rating: 4 stars
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 charts that rate 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.
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 things and making reading about the classics 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 try Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy 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 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 but 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).
Readers who want a fun overview of Western lit or who are seeking a guide to figure out which classics might be worth reading
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