Saturday 12 May 2012
The Western Lit Survival Kit by Sandra Newman
I was really excited to read The Western Lit Survival Kit because even though I studied English Literature to A-Level, I chose to study science at university and therefore never continued with literature. Although I have tried to educate myself by reading classics, I definitely lack an overarching view of how it all fits together and there are glaring gaps in my knowledge.
And I think The Western Lit Survival Kit was perfect for a reader like me, someone who is interested and knows about the basics but isn't university-educated in the subject. One of the most enjoyable aspects about reading it was working out which bits I was already familiar with and which were completely new. Surprising I discovered that I have a much better background than I thought in poetry (that's definitely from the A-Level) and that I'm OK at Russian Literature and gothic literature. On the other hand, my knowledge of French literature is non-existent.
Newman's writing style worked well for this kind of book as she didn't take herself or the subject too seriously. I found myself smiling at the humour and it was refreshing to see her treating the books as just books, rather than awe-inspiring works that are to be admired at all costs. Reading this, I felt like it was OK that there are certain authors I have no interest in reading, even though I know they are important (basically all the Greeks, Proust and Balzac).
I've seen a few other reviews critical of Newman's rating scales and they didn't always match up with my reading experience either, but that's fine. Reading literature is such an objective thing (especially when it comes to the fun scale) and I enjoyed seeing if my views matched up to hers. Newman doesn't put her perspective across as the be-all-and-end-all, although it was fun to see her share some of my opinions, for example I hated the writing in Frankenstein when I read it and so smiled when I saw Newman criticising it too. If you are precious about certain authors and wouldn't like them to be criticised, this perhaps isn't the book for you.
Overall, I had a lot of fun with The Western Lit Survival Kit and came away with a much better idea of what classic authors I want to read next and which ones I'm going to stop feeling guilty about not wanting to read. The light tone means that it's easy to read and never dry. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in the classics.
Source: From the publisher, via NetGalley
Score: 4 out of 5
First Published: In the Penguin UK edition, 19th April 2012