To exploit the battered and worn out cliché, (I promise, I’ll never do it again), there’s nothing like settling down with a good book. And there isn’t anything much worse than settling down with a bad one, or rather ‘unsettling’ down with one. As an English student, being a bookworm comes with the literature-laden territory, but, it’s fair to say that for many people books have a cathartic quality, an escapist mechanism and can offer insights into new ways of thinking.
“Read, read, read my unlearned reader, read!”, so says Laurence Sterne in his great comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. However, not everyone has the time (nor the patience, I’m sure) to familiarise themselves with the writings of everyone from Milton and Chaucer right through to Joyce and Zola. As impressive as it is to be able to pull out a Shakespeare quote at a party, or reference Homer at the dinner table, some books, no matter how many protestations we hear about their ingenuity, will always be incredibly tedious to read. How amazing would it be if somebody could read through all the classics and sift out the good ones for us all?
Enter Sandra Newman – a woman who has read all the classic works of literature from Austen to Sterne and has published a book called The Western Lit Survival Guide: How to Read the Classics Without Fear. The book is a humourous guide to Newman’s favourite classics, in which she grades each book out of ten – praising some authors, whilst deriding the works of other literary giants. Newman doesn’t hold back and her opinions, despite any tongue-in-cheek assertions, are sure to raise some critics’ eye brows. Calling Edgar Allan Poe “completely pointless, and hopelessly overrated” is just one of Newman’s gems.
It’s a brave undertaking, and we can thank Newman for her efforts, if not always agreeing with them. She says you don’t have to be particularly smart to enjoy an Austen novel and according to her, Milton’s Satan (from Paradise Lost) is the best literary villain. Her summation that de Sade’s (Marquis de Sade) novels are “most glaringly in need of a plot” is something, I feel, most people will agree with, as his plots are torturous both in theme and by their brutal and crude nature.
The Western Lit Survival Kit: How to Read the Classics Without Fear is a mammoth undertaking and is worth reading, even if it’s only to blag your way through a literary conversation, where you can shock everyone with lines like “isn’t John Bunyan incredibly dreary – his writing bores me to tears?!”
Now, smile, take a sip of your drink and walk away, so as to avoid any Joey-from-friends-isms…John who? Haha…