Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review: The Western Lit Survival Kit

The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner
Sandra Newman
Gotham Books
paperback, 280 pages
a copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours

The Western Lit Survival Kit really is irreverent. It is also sneakily erudite, and sometimes funny.

Humor is a funny thing, though. Humor might be the most difficult tone for a writer to pull off, and for this reader, the humor in this guide to the classics didn't always work. I guess I'll just get my reservations out of the way in one paragraph: the author is sometimes appealingly snarky, and sometimes just snarky. Sandra Newman dismisses whole chunks of literature as boring, vastly oversimplifies the category of the Victorian novel.... and she leaves out Trollope entirely. And there's no index! I love indices, and any even semi-scholarly guide should probably had an index.  To her credit, Newman acknowledges that Middlemarch is a very important novel, she gives Shakespeare his own chapter, and her book is both accessible and scholarly (in a sneaky, snarky way).

I'm trying to decide who the ideal reader of The Western Lit Survival Kit is. Someone not really well-read or educated in the liberal arts, but someone who could be tempted to be well-read...someday?

On the one hand, the humor, the tone, and the rating scale (books are rated on a scale of 1-10 in the areas of "importance," "accessibility," and "fun") hint that reading classic literature is daunting but sometimes entertaining. For a reader who unabashedly loves many of the books in the guide, some of Newman's dismisals were irritating, and the humor seemed to be aimed at some other reader. That sounds a bit harsh, but I think the humorous cultural references might make this guide dated in five years.

On the other hand, The Western Lit Survival Kit truly is smart. Newman puts Kipling in his place perfectly, while acknowledging the appeal of "If." She sums up Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn quite nicely. She has the guts to just say that Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever lived, and she says it with blunt humor. She's right to say that The Great Gatsby is "a profiterole of a novel, gorgeous to look at and filled with delicious whipped cream." And she nearly makes me repent of having taught The Scarlet Letter, which she goes ahead and tells the reader to avoid (reader, don't listen to her).

The Western Lit Survival Kit has brief sections scattered throughout the guide filled with biographies, historical tidbits, and explanations of stuff you didn't know you didn't know. These tidbits were my favorite part of the guide--cool stuff I didn't know. Overall, The Western Lit Survival Kit is smart and useful, but I wouldn't recommend it as a reader's only guide to classic literature. This is a book you might want to have on your shelf, right next to the more serious (boring?) guides, when you want to dip into unfamiliar waters without getting drenched in seriousness and awe.
To see what other reviewers thought of The Western Lit Survival Kit, check out TLC Book Tours. For more about Sandra Newman, go to http://www.sandranewman.org/


Scriptor Senex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scriptor Senex said...

(Had to delete previousd comment - far too many typos, sorry.)

She leaves out Trollope and is not keen on Victorian novels. Not on my 'to read' list then. But then again, the title is so appealing...

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like a book my son would enjoy. Thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that you enjoyed parts of this even if the humor didn't always work for you. Thanks for being a part of the tour!

Melody said...

I read this for LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program and felt much the same as you. I did think that it was intelligent and funny, (I had no problem reading the whole thing,) but at the same time there were so many overgeneralizations and omissions that I got a little irritated. Her opinions differed with my tastes enough that I don't think I could adopt her ratings/recommendations, but I was still entertained.d

bibliophiliac said...

@Scriptor Senex-Newman is very good on the ancients, but she's very harsh to my Victorians!
@bermudaonion-it is actually a pretty good overview-I may pass it on to my daughter...
@Melody-you state it perfectly! I disagreed with some of the ratings and value judgments, but overall thought the book was very well-informed-good to dip into for specific info...