Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Western Lit Survival Kit by Sandra Newman

Title: The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner
Author: Sandra Newman

Genre: Non-Fiction (Literary History / Literary Analysis / Western European Literature / Humor)
Publisher/Publication Date: Gotham (1/3/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a whole heck of a lot -- loved at moments!
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: A thousand or so years of Western literature, summarized and ranked -- amusingly! -- in about 280 pages.

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's playful and fun, like the book.

First line: In the 1920s, educators like Mortimer Adler started the Great Books programs, while imprints like Everyman's Library made the classics available to everyone at reasonable prices.

Did... I laugh so much on my subway ride that I tried to stifle my laughter, but kept sniggering so much a woman offered me a cough drop?: YES. Newman's humor is like mine -- geeky, sarcastic, feminist -- and so she and I were on the same page about many things.

Did... I stay up one night until nearly 3am because I couldn't put this down?: YES. Like potato chips, one more page wasn't enough. My wife would occasionally roll over and mumble, 'Quit shaking the bed' because I was snortling so hard.

Did... I like this book so much I want to do a reading challenge based on it?: YES. More to come this week!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy or borrow, for yourself or the lit geek in your life. Perfect for anyone who was scarred by high school English classes and think they hate the classics.

Why did I get this book?: The Scarlet Letter pretty much broke me in the 10th grade, and I've avoided many classic authors as a result. I wanted to get over my fear!

Review: Don't let that rather pedestrian first line put you off; this is an irreverent yet avowedly geeky look at the canon of Western European literature. Beginning with the ancient Greeks and ending with the Modernists, Newman provides pithy summaries of famous works with humorous ratings (by importance, accessibility, and fun).

Ranking books is pretty subjective, no matter how objective the criteria, and I'm honestly not usually a fan of this kind of non-fiction (I like forming my own opinion, thank you!). But Newman's sense of humor is much like mine -- geeky, sarcastic, feminist, wry -- and so reading her was a bit like riffing with my nerdy Lit major girlfriends. However, you don't need to be an armchair academic to appreciate Newman's thoughts on the greats of Western literature. Her pithy biographies and summaries give a snapshot of a particular work or writer, and a suggestion of why one should read or not read said work/writer.

I started marking hilarious/amusing/outrageous passages to quote and then found that I literally had a tab on every page. Here's a taste of Newman's writing style; she's discussing Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther:
The success of this novel was staggering. Across Europe, Werther became a role model for youth. Everyone wanted to be like this whining reject. Scores of young men killed themselves in imitation, until Geothe was ready to go around killing them himself. For the rest of his life, Goethe was revered as the man who created Werther, even after he had written far greater books, invented colors, and created the world in six days. (p151)
According to her own criteria, she rates The Sorrows of Young Werther as having a 10 in Importance, a 9 in Accessibility, and an 8 in Fun. I'm inclined to side with her opinions since she rates The Scarlet Letter with a 9 ("alas!") for Importance, an 8 for Difficulty, and a 4 for Fun. (My thoughts exactly!)

I was so amused and inspired by Newman's thoughts, I'm going to do a reading challenge based on the authors and books she mentions. (More on that to come.) Writers on writers is a favorite genre of mine, and book nerds on books is a sure way to get me to read more books (so brava, Newman!).

A super fun, snappy, and easy-to-digest guide to Western literature, that will provoke nods of agreement and a few gasps of horrified disagreement. And lots of laughing. Way more fun than my 10th grade English class!

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer one copy of The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner to a lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 1/27.


  1. I love the idea of letting this book guide your reading challenges. Sounds like a great book -- and in line with my nerdy tendencies! Must read!

  2. Oh, I so want to read this one, and your review really has me wiggling in anticipation! It sounds so snarky and nerdy, which are two qualities that I love in the books that I read! Please do enter me in your giveaway, and thanks for hosting it!!


    Great review, by the way!

  3. @Col: She inspired me to consider authors/works I normally scoff at, so this should be interesting!

    @Heather: It's really so marvelously fun and snarky and nerdy -- I think you'd love it! Be sure to fill out the form to enter!

  4. I've seen this one a couple of times lately and I can't wait to take a look at it!

  5. I cannot wait to read this one! I love books that make you belly laugh, and this sounds like it definitely will. Intrigued by your challenge...

  6. This sounds fun and fantastic and would make a great gift! Can't wait to hear about your challenge.

  7. Ha! The Scarlet Letter ruined me too! This one sounds fun, especially with all of the humorous.

  8. This sounds hilarious! The only thing is I wonder if I'd understand it all because I've never heard of the book you quoted the passage about, LOL.

  9. @Peppermint: It's so worth it!

    @Bella: I really couldn't stop laughing with this one!

    @Jen: I think you'll love this -- I'd love to hear your thoughts. We'll see if I can craft a challenge out of it -- the publisher doesn't have a website for the book which makes it a bit harder to break down...

    @Anna: Challenge is coming along, altho slowly and awkwardly!

    @Carrie: It's really so fun, and a relief to openly acknowledge how much I hate Hawthorne! ;)

    @Jenny: Newman summarizes the plots of all the books she references so even if you're unfamiliar with the book (as I was with many), you'll understand the basic gist and why it's considered important -- and Newman's opinion of whether it really is.

  10. This sounds like fun, and here I had the crazy impression it would be boring and completely not to my taste at all.

  11. This sounds like a fun book! Thanks for the giveaway!

  12. This sort of humor is tricky - it works for some people and not for others - so I'm thrilled to see that it was a hit with you! Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  13. This looks like fun! I need a laugh-out-loud snarky book..