16 May

Sandra Newman's The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, From Homer to Faulkner [2012] traverses the entirety of Western literature quickly, with little thought, other than in crafting persistent awkward maybe-jokes and coy metaphors.

Newman's selection of books suggests considerable breadth of knowledge hidden behind a misguided attempt to appeal to book-club members and other readers of popular fiction, or perhaps recent students still angry at an English teacher who gave them a bad grade but who want to know the basics of literary history (usually just its personalities)--all of whom we can't but believe that Newman and her editors and publicists look upon with scorn. I have difficulty believing any reader would leave this book wanting to read the works discussed here. Newman mocks many of the authors, especially the eccentric and those with apparent mental problems. She more often than not wants to deflate the genius of the works discussed; in the other words, she's committing a cardinal sin of criticism: not actually being interested in the subject at hand. Her efforts at concisely capturing the essence of various literary movements or broad trends of her own design (such as Nice Realism and Unwelcome Realism) are entertaining at times, but either way suggest the jaded experiences of Cliff's Notes readers, not readers. 

One might think at first that, once past her comedic routine and persistent repetition of every cliche about certain periods of history or literary movements one would ever want to remember, Newman at least provides quick overviews of a great deal of fine literature. Unfortunately, the cliches and the jokes, presumably there as a source of dismissive comments to make at social gatherings when the topic of literature surfaces and the conversation doesn't seem like it's going to turn back to television or politics anytime soon, completely ruin the text. If you don't believe me, read her entries for a few works you're familiar with. You'll see they add little but jokes and, at times, insults of the people who read these works. Look to the first page of the book, no less, for a an example: persons who learn Ancient Greek apparently are "a disturbing asexual presence." I like crude jokes as much as anyone, but you need to be smart also. Newman wouldn't get an interview if she applied to write headlines for the Onion. The rub, of course, is that those who read these works won't be reading this book. Then again, even the "creative class" buffoons who might enjoy the dismissive comments aren't going to want to trudge through lines like the following: "The detached elegance of his mind also makes us feel that Flaubert inhabits a purer sphere, until we remember that he lived with his mother, when he wasn't at a brothel getting icky diseases." Yes, this is the same person who wrote a book called How Not to Write a Novel.

Other aspects suggest sloppiness in the book's construction, most of all in that Newman rates the works on three different scales of 0 to 10. Obviously that's supposed to be 1 to 10, but don't tell the author that or she'll accuse you of being a no-fun fuddy duddy. Those three areas are Importance, Accessibility, and Fun. Accessibility, one would think is easy to define; indeed we're not surprised to see James Joyce's Ulysses getting a 1. But every Rudyard Kipling work mentioned gets a 0, despite her noting that some of them are now classed as children's literature. She does not explain this apparent discrepancy. Or is it a typo?

The book's stated geographical limitation does not disqualify it from this project, because "great books" lists began with such restrictions, just implicitly so. Again, the only limitations that warrant a list's exclusion are genre restrictions (as with the Die Zeit), chronological restrictions (as with the many lists of Twentieth-Century works), and relatively-strict geographical restrictions, especially by nation (such as Modern Library's recent famous lists of U S works).

My list of the works discussed in this book will be posted over the course of three days. As with other lists-as-books, such as Fadiman's, works other than those formally listed are included. In this case, the formal list consists of those works listed in tables throughout the book with their three scores in columns to the right. Given that some of these works don't exactly receive a "thumbs up" from Newman (who might not even have opposable thumbs--a joke that'll surely have Newman forgetting the scholar of Ancient Greek she once failed to bed), and she rates some of the works not in those tables quite highly, I've no criteria to exclude works mentioned in text; they're all included--and, if not found in the tables, have asterisks by them. I begin with the first-fifth chapters (Greece: Cradle of Greek Civilization; Rome: When the World Was Ruled by Italians; The Middle Ages and Points Between; The Renaissance: Back to the Future; and William "Look at Me, I Get My Own Chapter" Shakespeare) and the last chapter (The Messy Twentieth: Finally Over--that subtitle applying equally well to Newman's book).

Homer - The Iliad

Homer - The Odyssey

Hesiod - Theogony

Hesiod - Works and Days



Aeschylus - Prometheus Bound

Aeschylus - The Oresteia

Sophocles - Oedipus Rex

Sophocles - Oedipus at Colonus

Sophocles - Antigone

Medea - Euripides

Aristophanes - Lysistrata

Aristophanes - The Clouds

Aristophanes - The Frogs

Menander - Dyskolos *

Menander - The Woman From Samoa*




Virgil - Eclogues

Virgil - Georgics

Virgil - Aeneid 

Ovid - The Art of Love

Ovid - The Metamorphoses

Horace - Epodes

Horace - Satires

Horace - Odes



Lucan - Pharsalia*


Lucian - A True Story*

Lucian - The Passing of Peregrinus*

Longus - Daphnis and Chloe*

Heliodorus - Aethiopica*

Petronius - Satyricon*

Apuleius - The Golden Ass*

St. Augustine - Confessions


Other Anglo-Saxon Poetry (incl.
The Wanderer

The Dream of the Rood)

The Song of Roland

Geoffrey of Monmouth - Historia Regum Brittanniae*

Chretien de Troyes - Perceval, le Conte du Grail*

Chretien de Troyes - Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette (The Knight of the Cart)

Thomas Malory - Le Morte d'Arthur

Peter Abélard - The History of My Misfortunes; Peter Abélard and Héloïse d'Argenteuil - Letters

Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose)

Geoffrey Chaucer - Troilus and Criseyde

Geoffrey Chaucer - Canterbury Tales

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Dante - La Vita Nuova

Dante - The Divine Comedy

Petrarch - Il Canzoniere

Giovanni Boccaccio - The Decameron

Benvenuto Cellini - Autobiography

François Villon - Poems (incl.

François Rabelais - Gargantuela and Pantagruel

Michel de Montaigne - Essais

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra - Exemplary Novels

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra - Don Quixote

Christopher Marlowe - Dido, Queen of Carthage

Christopher Marlowe - Tamburlaine the Great

Christopher Marlowe - The Jew of Malta

Christopher Marlowe - Doctor Faustus

Christopher Marlowe - Edward II

Christopher Marlowe - The Massacre at Paris

Christopher Marlowe - 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love'*

Sir Walter Raleigh - 'The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd'*

Sir Thomas Wyatt*

Sir Philip Sidney - Astrophel and Stella*

Sir Philip Sidney - Arcadia*

Sir Philip Sidney - The Defence of Poesy*

Edmund Spenser - The Faerie Queen

Ben Jonson - Volpone

Ben Jonson - The Alchemist

Ben Jonson - Bartholemew Fair

William Shakespeare - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

William Shakespeare - King Lear

William Shakespeare - Macbeth

William Shakespeare - Othello

William Shakespeare - Julius Caesar

William Shakespeare - Antony and Cleopatra

William Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare - Cymbeline

William Shakespeare - Coriolanus

William Shakespeare - Richard II

William Shakespeare - King Henry IV Part One

William Shakespeare - King Henry IV Part Two

William Shakespeare - King Henry V

William Shakespeare - The Life and Death of King Richard III

William Shakespeare - A Midsummer's Night Dream

William Shakespeare - Much Ado About Nothing

William Shakespeare - The Taming of the Shrew

William Shakespeare - The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare - The Tempest

William Shakespeare - The Comedy of Errors

William Shakespeare - The Merry Wives of Windsor

William Shakespeare - Love's Labour's Lost

William Shakespeare - Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare - As You Like It

William Shakespeare - Measure for Measure*

William Shakespeare - Troilus and Cressida*

William Shakespeare - All's Well That Ends Well*

William Shakespeare - Titus Andronicus*

William Shakespeare - Timon of Athens*

William Shakespeare - Pericles*

William Shakespeare - Henry VI Part I*

William Shakespeare - Henry VI Part II*

William Shakespeare - Henry VI Part III*

William Shakespeare - Henry VIII*

William Shakespeare - The Two Noble Kinsmen*

William Shakespeare - The Winter's Tale*

William Shakespeare - The Two Gentlemen of Verona*

William Shakespeare - Sonnets

William Shakespeare - Other Poems (incl.
The Rape of Lucrece;
Venus and Adonis;
'The Passionate Pilgrim')


Charles Baudelaire - Fleurs de Mal

Charles Baudelaire - Journaux Intimes

Arthur Rimbaud - Early Poems
(incl. 'The Stolen Heart';
'The Drunken Boat')

Arthur Rimbaud - A Season in Hell

Arthur Rimbaud - Illuminations

Comte de Lautreamont - Poems
(incl. Chants de Maldoror)

Gerard Nerval - Poems

Tristan Corbrière - Poems

Paul Verlaine - Poems

Jules Laforgue - Poems

Stephane Mallarmé - Poems
(incl. 'L'Apres-midi d'une Faune';
'Un Coup de Des')

Alexander Blok - Poems
(incl. 'Twelve')

Andre Breton - Surrealist Manifesto*

F T Marinetti - 'Futurist Manifesto'*

Guillaume Apollinaire - Poems*

Guillaume Apollinaire - The Poet Assassinated*

William Butler Yeats - Poems
(incl. 'The Second Coming';
'For Anne Gregory';
'Meditations in Time of Civil War';
'Among School Children')  

Henry James - The American

Henry James - The Europeans

Henry James - The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James - The Bostonians

Henry James - The Spoils of Poynton

Henry James - The Turn of the Screw

Henry James - What Maisie Knew

Henry James - The Wings of the Dove

Henry James - The Ambassadors

Henry James - The Golden Bowl

Gertrude Stein - The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas

Gertrude Stein - Three Lives

Gertrude Stein - The Making of Americans

Gertrude Stein - Tender Buttons

Gertrude Stein - Geography and Plays

Franz Kafka - Stories 
(incl. The Metamorphosis)

Franz Kafka - The Trial

Franz Kafka - The Castle

Franz Kafka - Amerika

T S Eliot - 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock'

T S Eliot - 'The Waste Land'

T S Eliot - 'The Hollow Men'

T S Eliot - Ash Wednesday

T S Eliot - Four Quartets

William Carlos Williams - Spring and All

William Carlos Williams - Paterson

William Carlos Williams - 'The Red Wheelbarrow'*

William Carlos Williams - 'This Is Just to Say'*

William Carlos Williams - 'The Descent'*

Ezra Pound - A B C of Reading

Ezra Pound - Guide to Kulchur

Ezra Pound - Cantos

Ezra Pound - Cathay*

Ezra Pound - Short Poems

James Joyce - Dubliners

James Joyce - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce - Ulysses

James Joyce - Finnegans Wake

Marcel Proust - In Search of Lost Time

Virginia Woolf - A Room of One's Own*

Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse*

Virginia Woolf - Mrs. Dalloway*

Virginia Woolf - The Waves*

Virginia Woolf - Orlando*

E M Forster*

Ernest Hemingway - Stories
(incl. 'Hills Like White Elephants';
'Big Two-Hearted River';
'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber';
'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place';
'Mr. and Mrs. Elliot')

Ernest Hemingway - A Farewell to Arms

Ernest Hemingway - The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway - For Whom the Bell Tolls

Ernest Hemingway - The Old Man and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway - A Moveable Feast

Ernest Hemingway - Death in the Afternoon*

F Scott Fitzgerald - This Side of Paradise

F Scott Fitzgerald - The Beautiful and the Damned

F Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby

F Scott Fitzgerald - Tender Is the Night

F Scott Fitzgerald - The Last Tycoon

F Scott Fitzgerald - The Pat Hobby Stories

F Scott Fitzgerald - 'A Diamond as Big as the Ritz'*

William Faulkner - As I Lay Dying

William Faulkner - The Sound and the Fury

William Faulkner -  Absalom, Absalom

William Faulkner - Light in August

William Faulkner - Snopes trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion)


continued at 18 May and 19 May posts