03 June 2009

Beowulf on the Beach

Jack Murnighan has set out to make classic literature fun again by providing a road-map, if you will, to fifty of the greatest Western classics. Don't believe me? Here's the blurb:
Feel bad about not reading or not enjoying the so-called great books? Don’t sweat it, it’s not your fault. Did anyone tell you that Anna Karenina is a beach read, that Dickens is hilarious, that the Iliad’s battle scenes rival Hollywood’s for gore, or that Joyce is at his best when he’s talking about booze, sex, or organ meats?

Writer and professor Jack Murnighan says it’s time to give literature another look, but this time you’ll enjoy yourself. With a little help, you’ll see just how great the great books are: how they can make you laugh, moisten your eyes, turn you on, and leave you awestruck and deeply moved. Beowulf on the Beach is your field guide–erudite, witty, and fun-loving–for helping you read and relish fifty of the biggest (and most skipped) classics of all time. For each book, Murnighan reveals how to get the most out of your reading and provides a crib sheet that includes the Buzz, the Best Line, What’s Sexy, and What to Skip. - via the product page at BN.com

Murnighan takes each piece and breaks each one down into the major parts of the work, why that work is so great, what's the best line/scene, interesting tidbits, and, yes, where the naughty bits are in each work (the "what's sexy" parts).

Disclaimer: I've read 36 of the 50 works that Murnighan profiles in his book so I didn't read this because I feel guilty about my personal lack of exposure to classical literature (yes, I counted). I was more interested in Beowulf on the Beach because I wanted to see what Murnighan thought about the fifty pieces he chose (and what he said to skip).

In general, Murnighan really just wants everyone to re-visit (or visit for the first time) pieces of classical literature that have been shoved down our throats at school and, this time, read only the good parts (if you're type-A like me you'll read the whole thing anyway). I laughed a lot while reading Beowulf on the Beach and that was another one of Murnighan's points; literature is meant to be fun not tweedy and tedious, even Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow (Murnighan says he's a "recovering academic" in the Preface). Since I wasn't reading the book for guidance, I made a game out of seeing how many euphemisms for "sex" are used throughout the book (nooky, nook-nook, the beast that makes two backs, the nasty, etc). There are a lot, which makes the work seem a little juvenile at times, but is useful in that it brings many of the pieces down from the stratosphere of high art. Everything seems a bit more accessible and besides, on the whole we have too many Puritan hang-ups about sex in this country.

The only quibble I had with the book was in the secondary title: "What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Works." The greatest works? Really? Because I remember reading in "A Note on the Selections" that Murnighan states he wasn't trying to make a definitive list. Rather, he was trying for a wide range of works in the Western oeuvre (he claims Eastern Canon is not his specialty), trying to pare the Canon down to a manageable number for one book, and injecting a little of his own opinion into the list. So while Murnighan is not trying to make a statement about Canon, part of his title does (did he choose it, I wonder). Since Murnighan had to re-read all the books over in order to write his own book, he's entitled to choose works that he personally admires (heck, I do the same thing with my book group at BNBC). I do admit to being surprised to see Musil's The Man Without Qualities on the list but no Steinbeck or Wharton.

I think Beowulf at the Beach is a book meant for everyone, bibliophiles and classical neophytes alike.

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