The title might suggest this is a serious guide to literature but that impression quickly disappears after reading just a few pages. Sandra Newman’s book is far from being a definitive guide to the great canons of Western literature. Instead it’s an irreverent take on the great novelists, playwrights and poets beginning with the ancient Greek dramatists, trundling through Shakespeare, the Renaissance, and ending with the twentieth century American greats like F Scott Fitzgerland and William Faulkner.
Newman’s introduction tells you everything you need to know about her approach.
This book treats Western lit like an amusement park. It offers a guide to the rides, suggesting which ones are fun for all ages, which are impossibly dull for all ages and which might take a lot out of you but offer an experience you simply can’t get anywhere else.
The chapter titles are indicative of her attitude of healthy disrepect for some of these great periods of literature and the literary gods they produced. So Chapter 5 is headed ‘William ‘Look at Me I get my Own Chapter’ Shakespeare” and Chapter 12 is titled ‘The French and Russians Team up to Depress Mankind”.
“Watching Hamlet try to avenge his father is uncannily like watching your teenaged son try to get a job”, is her verdict on Hamlet. Of Dickens, Newman says “His heroes, and especially his heroines, are limp vanilla creatures
Each chapter begins with a short introduction to the period and the genre in question and is followed by a series of short summaries about the writers of that period and their principal works. Newman then provides a table in which she scores these titles according to their importance, their accessibility and their ‘fun’ factor. So George Eliot’s Middlemarch gets the maximum 10 points for importance, and eight for fun but only five for accessibility whereas Mill on the Floss scores lower on importance but is equal to Middlemarch in terms of accessibility and fun. The table could be useful for someone who’s never read Eliot before and wants a suggestion which to choose first.