The Western Lit Survival Kit
How to Read the Classics Without Fear
Paperback : 05 Apr 2012
There they sit, the great tomes of classical literature, taunting you with their length and difficulty, as you ask: which books are the most important and why - and what's actually any good? Why does most writing about the classics have words like 'seminal' or 'oeuvre' in it? What does postmodernism mean? Can I get away with just reading the introduction?
Now you can enjoy the classics without fear. This survival kit will guide you painlessly through the Western literary canon, century by century: from Ancient Greek drama to the modern novel, via Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Romantic poetry, Tolstoy and Proust. There are entertaining plot summaries, unpretentious definitions of literary movements and fresh insights into authors' lives. With each work assigned ratings from 1 to 10 on Importance, Accessibility and Fun, you'll discover what's really worth bothering with and what you can safely discard without guilt.
This book will make the things you've read clearer, inspire you to tackle the ones you've always meant to and make you sound far cleverer than you really are.
1. Why did you write the Western Lit Survival Kit?
Why does the rain rain? Why does a duck quack? Put another way, it's the natural consequence of being the sort of person who reads Western literature for fun, and writes books, and who thought of it first.
2. What were your guidelines for choosing the canon?
It was purely based on how much grief I thought I would get for leaving something out. So it was basically a popularity contest, in which my own feelings took a back seat to “What does everyone vaguely agree is important, however begrudgingly?” So, even the most passionate lover of Southey (if such a creature exists) understands that, in a work place staffed entirely by Romantic poets, Southey will always be the last hired, first fired.
The other main plank of the curatorial process was based on my book contract, which specified a work of 100,000 words. Since the original manuscript was 130,000 words, and the American editor proved humorless about these extra 30,000 words, a bloody Darwinian culling ensued, in which weaker species (Marie de France, the Norse sagas) were ruthlessly exterminated. Or, at least, relegated to the web-site.
3. In Western Lit Survival Kit you say that Paradise Lost is about as fun as being trapped in a freezer. Which is the most fun book you’ve ever read and what makes it so fun?
Obviously I'm thinking of Western literature now, so I'll say Tom Jones. But it's very likely that - the human mind being what it is - the true answer would be something I read when I was eight or nine. Or some schlock science fiction novel that I read when I had the flu. With an honorable mention to the novels I read at thirteen for the sex scenes.
Or, if I were being really, really honest, I'd say that no book could possibly be as much fun as a book you have written yourself. No reading pleasure can rival the heady fun of laughing at my own jokes, or marvelling at my stunning artistry and acumen.
4. Who is the most misunderstood writer in your eyes?
There are many candidates, depending on the area in which the misunderstanding occurs. I could start with Nathaniel Hawthorne, because there is a widespread misconception that he was a writer. In a completely different vein, I'm personally convinced that William Shakespeare was gay - since his only personal writings consist almost entirely of love sonnets written to a man, which seems like a smoking gun. I know that I'm not the first person to believe this, but the idea is still marginal enough that an absurdity like Shakespeare In Love can pass without controversy. The fact that many authors are spuriously identified as gay should not blind us to the fact that some of them really were gay, and that being in love with a person of the same sex is usually a telltale sign of gayness.
5. Which member of the canon would you most like to launch from a cannon?
Well, I actually do like all these writers (even Hawthorne, to some degree, despite the horrors of his prose style). But it might be satisfying to launch Milton from a cannon, if one were allowed to deliver a long speech to him first, detailing his crimes against the human attention span. This might include a reading of the entire text of Paradise Regained - while he was in the cannon, beginning to suffer from cramps and desperately needing to pee. But after all, God blinded him, so clearly there is some justice in this world without needing to resort to cannons and such.
It might also have been fun to launch Cellini from a cannon, since he would almost certainly survive, and it would provide a thrilling, if typical, chapter for his autobiography. And one feels that Cellini wouldn't mind.
6. If you could wake up one morning as a character from any novel, who would you be? And if you had to be the same character for the rest of your life?
I would go for something with an action hero, because in many ways I am really a ten- year-old boy at heart. If it were only a day, perhaps Achilles, for the opportunity to meet Greek gods. For a day, it would also be good fun, if a little hair-raising, to be Ishmael at the climax of Moby Dick. For a lifetime, perhaps D'Artagnan, though there is a temptation to choose one of the actual Greek gods, for the indefinite extension of the lifetime. If it had to be a woman, perhaps the Countess from The Charterhouse of Parma. Really, anything that a ten-year-old boy would consider exciting is good for me.
7. If you could change the ending to one novel, what would it be and why?
The ending of War and Peace (if you ever get there) is unbelievably irritating. Tolstoy imposes a happy-families ending on his characters which sounds (although he paints big smiles on everyone) like a living hell. Then he tops it off with his umpteenth dreary discourse on free will versus determinism. Especially galling - in the happy-families part - is Tolstoy's account of how the serfs just love being beaten by their master Nikolai Rostov, they wouldn't have it any other way. Actually, as I write this, I'm beginning to imagine Tolstoy stuffed into a cannon.
8. You are about to be put into solitary confinement for a year and are allowed to take three books. What would you choose?
Really, it's almost immaterial which books they are, as long as two are hollowed out to contain a pistol and a file. But perhaps the third could be The Charterhouse of Parma, to while away the hours when I am too tired to go on filing, and not ready yet to start shooting my way to freedom. Not only is it great fun (rivalling Tom Jones) but it would put me in the right mood.
9. Which literary character would you most like to go on a date with?
Perhaps Satan from Paradise Lost? It might not be that rewarding romantically, but you get to meet Satan. In fact, God would obviously also be worth meeting, though perhaps Homer's Zeus would be better on a date, as long as he didn't turn into a swan at the crucial moment.
10. Finally, any tips on how to sound smart without having read Dostoyevsky/Joyce/Milton?
Clearly, the only possible way to achieve this is to read my book. If you do not read my book, you will struggle in vain.
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 304
Published : 05 Apr 2012
Publisher : Particular Books
Other formats for The Western Lit Survival Kit:
» ePub eBook: eBook : £8.99
The Western Lit Survival Kit
How to Read the Classics Without Fear
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