It says “irreverent” right there on the cover, but maybe they should bold it. Put it in all caps. Underline it. Because I don’t think I was prepared for a tenth of The Western Lit Survival Kit’s sassiness. Sandra Newman, it’s safe to say, has nothing short of an acerbic wit.
In some ways, I was the ideal audience for a book like this, going in. I have read a pitifully small sliver of the canon, and I know that many of the books I could read to bulk up my literary chops would only be digested with a mind to say I’ve read more of the canon. I really just don’t think I’d enjoy Moby Dick, for example, just as so many of the first chapters of other classics mentioned in Newman’s Survival Kit went so dishearteningly unenjoyed. Not because they’re poorly written, and not even because I’d find them boring; I just wouldn’t find myself connecting. So it’s really pretty perfect for me that Newman goes to the trouble of not only giving me abbreviated synopses of so many classics, but also a scale that rates each book in terms of Importance, Accessibility, and Fun. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that she outlines the larger literary movements themselves (Old Comedy, Realism, Romanticism), being careful to mention which talking points you can use to sound more learned at cocktail parties (though I object, on principal, to learning anything purely on the basis of a potential cocktail party I might never, in fact, get invited to – maybe getting that pesky MFA would up my chances?).
Zeus was notorious for taking the form of just about anything he could think of in order to get girls to sleep with him – a bull, a swan, a shower of gold. Apparently it never occurred to him that girls might want to sleep with someone who looks like a Greek god.
The Survival Kit positively bursts with moments like this. Whether it’s through obviously modernized paraphrasing of characters’ dialogue or wordplay in the sidebar commentary, Newman is committed to the idea that her spin on CliffsNotes will be a different sort of summary: one that fully admits (rather more than CliffsNotes and SparkNotes do) that there might be a damn good reason you haven’t read some (or most) of these before. With the three-rating scale she’s devised, then, she lets you know whether you should really reconsider and try to slog through a particular volume (because it’ll be well worth it, like the poetry of John Donne), or whether, truth be told, she didn’t find a whole lot about the book redeeming, either (as with Mark Twain’s The Innocent Abroad). Whichever the case, Newman does not condescend to her reader. Continue reading