Saturday, March 19, 2011

Beowulf on the Beach

Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest HitsJack Murnighan's Beowulf on the Beach is a terrific introduction to reading the classics outside of the classroom.  His writing is quick, hip, and immensely readable.  What I like best is the author's emphasis on reading literature for the joy it brings.  As Murnighan writes, "Once you open yourself to the humor, drama, adventure, sex, poignancy, elegance, tragedy, and beauty of the great books, you'll see why they've long been considered among the most inspiring and engaging things ever written.  He continues, "I want you to feel these books in your heart, in your soul, and maybe even below the waist."  Yes--Murnigan is the same guy who wrote The Naughty Bits: The Steamiest and Most Scandalous Sex Scenes from the World's Great Books--but this book is a lot more than that. It is "an attempt to show you what's in the great books that make them really matter."

Make sure you don't miss "Tips on Reading Classics," a short section at the end of the book.  (In fact, I suggest reading it immediately after you finish the brief introduction.)  Although his advice is simple, it will really help you organize your reading.

Although he does not refer to the concept by name, Murnighan encourages us to join the Great Conversation.  "Put yourself in dialogue with some of the most brilliant minds, sensitive hearts, quick wits, vivacious spirits, and wise teachers the world has ever known," he says.  "The greatest men and women of all of history are speaking to you--and you can hear them."

The majority of Beowulf on the Beach is a compendium of annotated books, listed in chronological order. Murnighan includes offers a basic introduction the the author and the context in which the book was produced, a brief discussion of plot, and even a discussion of sections to skip or skim. His reviews are funny, irreverent, and utterly charming.

A couple of examples:

1. He calls the Iliad the "origin and apex of virility lit." What a wonderful coinage to add to "chick lit"!

2. When talking about the Odyssey, he says that Penelope's rowdy suitors are turning Odysseus's house in Ithaca "into a Cornell frat."

Finally, I like Murnighan's take on choosing which texts he uses in his book. As he points out, it is hard to choose what is the most influential or iconic books of all time. So he started his selection by asking people what they "felt kind of bad about" never reading seriously. In other words, "communal remorse dictated [the] first list." He then added a few additional items that critics and scholars have placed "among literature's finest achievements." He also included books that "carve out corners of literature that no one else occupies."

One could quibble with Murnighan about his choices. Perhaps because I read Fadiman so recently, I noticed the relative absence of classic Asian books. But unlike Fadiman, Murnighan never suggests that his desire would be for a complete list. "As to the so-called Great Books debate, i.e. whether we teach the dead white guys are keep opening up 'his-story' to other voices, call me a conscientious objector. He loves the classics, but he loves any books that help any individual reader feel connected to books and to life.

He makes a point that I find remarkably compelling: of course it is true that comic books or postmodern novels can be just as significant as Shakespeare or one of the other "great books"--but it is equally true that we can enjoy reading Shakespeare just as much as we enjoy reading the contemporary stuff. I think many readers of my generation believe that the classics are dry and useless, something boring only to be endured in the classroom.  Beowulf on the Beach heals us from those assumptions and gives us a great path for enjoying these books.


  1. Somehow I don't see a strong parallel between 'chick' and 'virility.' Maybe 'chick' and 'macho' would work.

    I'm seeing a huge groundswell of classics reading these days. Do you see the same thing?

  2. Yes, I liked this book very much, too. In fact read it on a beach on vacation a couple of years ago. Loved his breaking down each book into the Good, the Bad, and the Naughty. (or was it the Sexy? I can't recall...)

  3. I was just saying to DH this morning that I really mustn't buy any more books for a long time and then you dangle this one in front of me! I'm going to have to go and look it up. It sounds right up my street! I don't know if I should thank you or not... :o)

  4. Forgive me, Lifetime Reader, for leaving a plug here for my blog, but I thought you would find this post interesting. I'd love to have your thoughts on the book and on Ben's comments.

  5. Clifton Fadiman wrote in an era before so many wonderful Japanese novels began to be translated-I think were he to write today he would have placed several Japanese classics on his list-I think he would have placed The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki on the list-

  6. I learned about this wonderful book on the "Books on the Nightstand" podcast. It helped me get through Don Quixote--although I didn't skip, I now use a similar formula when I recommend it to people.

  7. Sounds like a great book. Do you think that people who *should* read it ever pick it up, or will it end up only being read by the people who already enjoy reading "the classics"?

  8. Um, so, um, Murnighan is being deliberately G-rated with that "virility lit" thing. There's a more common term that rhymes with "chick lit."

  9. I read this about a year ago and loved it. His irreverence and humor are refreshing compared to the way classics are usually taught, and it was nice for the reminder that any book can be enjoyed, not just the current ones.

  10. All but a couple of my undergraduate literature professors were humorous and irreverent. They had devoted their life to studying and teaching great literature, most of which is humorous, irreverent, or both. Thus, their attraction to the subject.

    Richard Russo gets it right in Straight Man - lit profs are a bunch of smart alecks.

  11. Amateur Reader, now that I think of it, the prof I had for literature in college (I only had time for the two required semesters) was humorous and irreverent. I was really thinking more of high school, in which the classics were dealt with much more seriously. The way we dealt with Macbeth has pretty much ruined it for me--and I know it's good! (Maybe someday I'll be able to face it again, I hope.)


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