I’m (probably) in the middle of my “middle-age years,” and I’ve definitely been feeling the “so many books, so little time left (SMBSLTL)” pressure, particularly when it comes to classic literature. Outside of educational settings, the Western canon hasn’t played much of a role in my adult reading life--mostly by choice. And now, how likely is it that I’m going to spend some of that little time on books I’ve either had little interest in reading, or have actively avoided reading, for lo these many years? Let’s be honest--it’s probably not going to happen. I appreciate the cultural and historical literacy value in knowing about those books and their influence, but I don’t necessarily feel the desire or need to experience many of them for myself. And apparently I’m not alone. As Sandra Newman notes in the Introduction to The Western Lit Survival Kit, “Even people who don’t want to read the Great Books will read about the Great Books.”
Newman really does mean to encourage reading of the Great Books themselves, although she’s well aware of the obstacles. As she acknowledges in the Introduction, “Literature is a pleasure. It should be emotionally satisfying, intellectually thrilling, and just plain fun. And if it isn’t, you shouldn’t feel bad about not reading it.”
Over the course of fourteen breezy chapters, Newman hits the literary milestones of over two thousand years with discussions of authors, works, and literary trends and styles. As might be expected in this format, most topics don’t get much space (and only Shakespeare gets a full chapter to himself), but there’s a surprising amount of depth in some sections, particularly as the book moves into last couple of centuries. The standout feature of the book is the charts that Newman uses to summarize each discussion, in which she assigns works ratings from 1 to 10 for Importance, Accessibility, and Fun (an assessment of how much enjoyment the reader may expect from the experience).
The charts are an excellent tool for making those SMBSLTL choices, particularly when all you want is to sample a book or two within a particular style or by a certain author. The rating criteria can be considered in combination or individually, since they recognize that different things matter to different readers. Some readers may prefer a less Important book that’s more Fun, for example. Others may be primarily interested in the books with the highest combined ratings (that would be Pride and Prejudice, which scores a perfect 10 across the board--and which is one canonical work I have read).
Newman’s tone throughout the book is In keeping with her contention that literature should be a pleasure. I found reading The Western Lit Survival Kit to be satisfying, thought-provoking, and a lot of fun. Some bits, especially in the early chapters, were laugh-out-loud funny, although perhaps less so if you’re not fond of snarky humor. Personally, I’m quite fond of snarky humor, so it was just one more reason for me to like this book very much. The Western Lit Survival Kit is going on my keeper shelf--I just might be making use of some of those charts. On its own scale, I rate it:
Importance - 8
Accessibility - 10
Fun - 9