Book Review: "The Western Lit Survival Kit" by Sandra Newman

In A Nutshell*
Comedy Central meets college English.
The Whole Enchilada
The subtitle of Newman’s book reads “An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner,” a statement which is absolutely true and almost everything you need to know about this book. Sandra Newman has put together a wry, funny and delightful journey from the Classical literature of the Greeks to meta-fiction in the twentieth century, and along the way she sneaks in an abundance of fascinating bits of history, biography, and literary criticism; but she manages to do it so well that you don’t even realize you’re learning anything. Entertainment that makes us smarterthis is definitely a book I’ll be keeping on my shelves to read, refer to and recommend to friends over and over again.

One of the things I appreciated about the book is that Sandra Newman was able to be irreverent without being disrespectful. While she is not afraid to tease the pedestal right out from under some of our sacred authors, it is always done with love, and more importantly, with knowledge. For example, when she writes of Henry James that his sentences are “a sort of literary Great Wall: while other, similar, structures exist, none are quite so long with so little apparent reason. (In fact, some sentences in The Golden Bowl can be seen from space)” it is as a lead-in to a discussion of the multiple layers of feeling and perception which can be found in these sentences. Of course the discussion, as with the rest of the book, is all tongue in cheek, which is what keeps this subtle literary lecture absolutely engaging.
Newman employs a rating system in each chapter (or for each author); and each work gets graded on a scale of 1 to 10 in the areas of importance, accessibility, and fun. I found that the ratings Newman gave works with which I was familiar was about the same as the ratings I would give, making her a trustworthy guide (for me, at least). I am sad to say that after reading The Western Lit Survival Kit my own “To Be Read” list has grown considerably simply on the basis of her recommendations.
This is not to say that everything about the book was perfect, but the imperfections I found were fairly insignificant when taken with the book as a whole: I was never sure if she is rating works against other works in the same category, or against the entirety of the Western canon. In some chapters she rates a work’s “accessibility” but in others it is rated as “difficulty,” making it hard to know if an 8 is a good or bad rating. There were authors who did not seem to rate a rating for whatever reason (Flaubert and Tolstoy most notably) which had me wondering if it was intentional or an oversight. But all of these small faults were nothing compared to the amount of enjoyment I got from this book.
Perhaps the best way to recommend this book (which I absolutely and strongly do) is to let Newman speak for herself. Here are 3 reasons (although these are not the only reasons, not by far) to read The Western Lit Survival Kit:
“[Mark Twain] began his working life at eleven, when his father died. (Conrad and Melville’s fathers also died when they were eleven. While this may seem like a trivial coincidence, our eleven-year-old readers who are serious about a writing career should take no chances. You know what you have to do.)” –From the chapter “We Also Begin To Have Americans”
“In a time when women were still acceptable birthday presents, Sappho’s status was unprecedented.” –From the chapter “Greece, The Cradle of Greek Civilization”
 “Among other matters, the present author, like almost everyone else, would be happier if Western literature were not quite as white and male as it is. Like almost everyone else, however, there is nothing I can do about it, except try not to let it bother me, and drink. C’est la vie, which as everyone knows, is not a bowl of cherries. And if it were, in past centuries, white men would have eaten all of them, while the rest of us would have had to wash the bowl. Still, when they were full of all that healthy cherry energy, those white guys wrote some pretty good books.” –From the Introduction
If you are already a lover of literature or simply someone who has always wanted to know more about the “Great Books”, and if these quotes have made you chuckle even a little bit, then you absolutely must read this book.
Rating: ****1/2
* Thank you to Ti, the wonderful blogger over at Book Chatter, whose very appealing “The Short of It” and “The Rest of It” format I stole and used for my review format here. I bow down to Ti’s book reviewing abilities.

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