Monday, January 23, 2012

The Western Lit Survival Kit by Sandra Newman - Book Review

The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverant Guide to the Classics from Homer to Faulkner by Sandra Newman shows its cards in its sub-title. This is supposed to be a funny book about literary classics, and, in many ways it succeeds. The book often brought a smile to my face and sometimes proved itself to be laugh out loud funny. The introduction claims to help readers get past using books like this as ways to avoid actually reading the classics. It seeks, rather, to “treat 'Western Lit' like an amusement park,” offering a “guide to the rides” much like one of the many guides to Disney World. Newman argues that literature should be “emotionally satisfying, intellectually thrilling, and just plain fun.” Newman does not intend The Western Lit Survival Kit to be a substitute for actual reading. She is a master of the trenchant wisecrack, usually able to poke fun at a work while often clarifying its place in literary history and highlighting its importance.

Despite all claims to the contrary, Newman provides her readers with plenty of facts and useful quotations to help them appear literate in conversation without offering sufficient detail to help on the GRE, SAT or in World Lit 101 exams. The book could, however, be useful at cocktail parties, but be careful in book groups or dark coffee houses where others there might actually have read the works. I suspect I approached the book like many other readers would. I decided to see how a couple of my favorite writers were handled, and I chose Charles Dickens. From the start, this proved a bit difficult because the book doesn't have an index. Neglecting an index in a book claiming to clarify works of World Literature for the general reader strikes me as a serious oversight. Nevertheless, since I knew Dickens era, I tracked him down.

As a former secondary school and college English teacher, I had plenty of opportunities to read and teach Dickens. I had read A Tale of Two Cities as an eighth grader, taught David Copperfield in an abridged version to limited ninth graders and Great Expectations to more talented ones. In both cases I found most of the students to be highly resistant to Dickens often heated and convoluted language. My own most satisfying experience reading Dickens happened when I read Bleak House one week when snowed in far from home. I spent the days in my sun drenched den luxuriating in Dickens language, story-telling, humor, and pathos. This reading prompted me to read two major biographies of this greatest British novelist of the nineteenth century and perhaps of them all. What made the difference? I was in my early forties and ready to encounter a masterpiece. I'd argue that most students are required to read classics way before they're ready. Perhaps the greatest utility of The World Lit Survival Kit is that it encourages readers to examine their own readiness for great works in a humorous and often enticing fashion. Meanwhile, Newman's characterizations of Dickens and his work (pp 189 – 192) are fair and amusing as are most other entries.

When I first riffled through The Western Lit Survival Kit I thought it would be best read by the dipping in method. Maybe I'd leave it in the bathroom and dip into it on a regular basis. The absence of an index makes this approach impractical if not impossible. As both a reader and a teacher I never have thought much of chronological attacks on literature, preferring reading thematically or idiosyncratically. It's rare now that I choose any sort of organized way to select my next book, except for trying to alternate fiction and non-fiction. However, I think I'd never read world lit from the beginning to the end so, again, an index would have been quite useful. As a conscientious reviewer, however, I read the book from beginning to end, choosing to skip most French lit and some Cavalier poets, although I did miss one of my favorite couplets from John Lovelace: I could not love you dear, so much/Loved I not honour more. Sad, but literature is all about making choices. One of Ms. Newman's choices is to obsessively emphasize the sexual orientation of writers and to explore their sexual exploits. I had thought we might be past all that, but apparently Newman's intended audience is still hung up on these issues or enjoys vicarious snarky sex. In the cases of Byron and Shelley it still might be relevant.

As a thought experiment, I read the Wikipedia entry on the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelly to determine whether it would have been possible to write an entry without ever having read the poet. The answer is a qualified “yes,” although some familiarity with Bartlett's Familiar Quotations or Google would be useful, too. The humor, however, always comes from Newman herself. Many of Newman's seemingly offhand cracks refer to contemporary politics, reminding readers of literature's universality while also helping them to see the connections between literature and life. Newman's most trenchant comments compare characters or works from literary history to today's politics or popular culture. They are nearly always thought provoking or laugh providing, stopping the reader in mid-paragraph for a startled realization or a chuckle. In her description of Emerson, for instance, she does more to anchor his vision as a precursor of the contemporary American spirit than anything else I've read. Emerson, she says, “espoused an extreme individualism which helped to shape our idea of what it means to be an American. When Sarah Palin calls herself a 'maverick,' she is channeling not the Founding Fathers, but the Founding Hippie.” (163) Writing about Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Newman offers “My apologies to all those forced to read this book in school. I have no explanations for you, and I cannot give you back those days of your life. It may comfort you to know that I have suffered too, and that I will doubtless have a score of Hawthorne fans denouncing me for the courage to speak truth to awful.” (174-175) Gems like these make this book a must read for aspiring English teachers or majors.

While the book is pretty comprehensive in surveying the world literature canon, there is at least one serious oversight. While Newman spends plenty of time on Shakespeare and rightly credits him with creating much of the English language as we now know it, she mysteriously neglects to mention that other great literary achievement of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, The King James Bible. This most masterful and poetic translation of The Bible is still the most widely read book by often otherwise illiterate English speakers and continues to effect the way English is spoken. The King James rendering of the psalms, for instance, contains some of the most beautiful English poetry ever written. 

Sandra Newman
Photo by Charles Hopkinson

In the long run, becoming what is known as “culturally literate” means reading the great works of world literature in order to be able gain a deeper understanding of the world we currently live in. Doing so encourages us to make connections, to ask questions like “What does this work mean to me?” and “How does reading this work help me understand myself in the world?” For the neophyte reader, Sandra Newman cracks open the door, making the canon of western literature more approachable. For the more widely read person, she assists with making re-appraisals of works that we may have overlooked. At times, there appears, underneath the wisecracks and often successful efforts at humor, the carefully cloaked vision of a serious scholar who may have spent a great deal of time with French literature. Sometimes. However, I felt as if I were reading a film treatment to be directed by Judd Apatow starring Vince Vaughn and Seth Rogan. This comment may reflect my own sense of audience, though.

The Western Lit Suvival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics from Homer to Faulkner by Sandra Newman is published by Gotham Books, a division of the Penguin Group. It's a 2012 imprint and available from all the usual sources. I was provided the book by the publisher as part of a TLC Book Tour.

 Other Stops on This Book Tour

Monday, January 2nd:  Sophisticated Dorkiness
Tuesday, January 3rd:  Chaotic Compendiums
Wednesday, January 4th:  DBC Reads
Thursday, January 5th:  Book Hooked Blog
Friday, January 6th:  Bibliophiliac
Monday, January 9th:  Bibliosue
Tuesday, January 10th:  Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, January 11th:  The 3 R’s Blog
Thursday, January 12th:  Library of Clean Reads
Friday, January 13th:  Books Distilled
Monday, January 16th:  Lit and Life
Tuesday, January 17th:  Shooting Stars Mag
Wednesday, January 18th:  Luxury Reading
Thursday, January 19th:  Joyfully Retired
Friday, January 20th:  Book Snob
Tuesday, January 24th:  Sarah Reads Too Much
Wednesday, January 25th:  Literary Musings
Thursday, January 26th:  Between the Covers


  1. Still on my "bucket list" is to read all of the Dickens' canon, some of them for the second time. I'll first have to check out Ms. Newman's take on him and his contemporaries. Thanks for the helpful comments, especially noting the absence of the KJV (which I haven't read in entirety, either!).

  2. I have to admit to a particular fondness for Dickens, especially BLEAK HOUSE, so I'm glad to know you have good memories of that one. (And I particularly dislike Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER, but that's neither here nor there.)

    I'm glad to see that you generally enjoyed this one. Thanks for being on the tour! I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.