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Posted February 3, 2012
The subtitle for The Western Lit Survival Kit says it all: "An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner". I've tried reading and/or flipping through anthologies like this before. Usually, collections of short précis or summaries of books/theories/philosophies sound much better than they actually are. Every author/compiler seems to think they are more witty and urbane than everyone else on the planet. Mathematically, of course, this isn't possible. And the books bear that mathematical impossibility out.
Most of the time, books like The Western Lit Survival Kit read like a mediocre student's collection of seventh grade book reports. Still, somehow I remain an eternal optimist about this type of book, despite the fact that I am a die-hard pessimist (or at best cynic) about all other things in life, and despite the fact that I am nearly always universally disappointed as a result. So imagine my delight when I started reading this one and found that it did, in fact, deliver on its promise!
Sandra Newman's summaries and analyses - as well as her scales rating the importance, difficulty, and fun of the various works she describes - are concise without being curt, interesting without being overdramatic, and surprisingly fun to read. She covers a wide variety of works by the standard canonical western world authors, and sprinkles in fun facts, odd tidbits of insight and snarkiness. There is also just enough evidence of her apparently insatiable appetite for authors many of us cannot stomach to make the book a fun and useful reference guide.
I'm not in school anymore. I don't need crib-notes on the plot, meaning, or purpose of literary works. I've read enough to be able to hold my own in conversation about most of the great works - through reference even if not through direct reads. Still, there are authors that I've never quite been able to get through at more than a superficial level, as well as some whose point I've never been able to fully grasp. Newman's guide is a great way to get a better sense of the content and significance (at least to the world of literature, even if not to the world of Jill-Elizabeth, teehee) of these. And it is pretty fun - and funny - too.