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
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I'm glad somebody liked this book, because I really disliked it. While I get that it's a fun opinionated take on the classics, I found a lot of factual errors and omissions that really undermined her credibility for me. Opinions are one thing, but she was wrong or only told half-truths in a number of places, and that really put me off.ReplyDelete
My review may be one of the ones you're talking about that complained about her rating system. I know that ratings like Fun or Importance are subjective, so I didn't much care about those (even if I thought she was way off). For something like Accessibility (how easy it is to read) I don't think subjectivity is so much of an issue, and her ratings were pretty much wrong in that category. To say that Whitman is more difficult than Eliot is just not right. She even contradicts herself in a few places. She says about Kipling that his books would be good for 10-year-olds, and then gives them a 0 in accessibility. That just doesn't make any sense.
I get the feeling that she didn't really read the entirety of all of these books, or that if she did she didn't do enough research on them. I felt like she was too busy being funny to be factual. I really worry that people, especially students, are going to base their opinions of literature on her summaries and end up with completely backwards ideas about what authors and works are really like.
All that said, your review is great, and I liked how you explained what you liked about the book and how it fit in with your knowledge. I found the tone to be pretty fun too. I'm really glad to know that there are ways people can find this book helpful and entertaining despite its flaws. As they say, every book has a reader. Maybe I was just the wrong audience for it.
Thanks for the detailed comment Emily, it's interesting your response was so different to mine.Delete
I actually think accessibility can be subjective (although the Kipling example is inconsistent), especially with poetry. In my A Level class of about 15, we would all have different accessibility reactions to each poet we tackled. I remember really struggling with Yeats and 'the centre shall not hold' but other people in my class didn't. Likewise, I'm fine reading Shakespeare but struggle with Austen much more than the majority of people seem to. Shakespeare is more accessible to me than Austen and for others (my sister) the opposite is true. Neither of us is wrong.
I hope people wouldn't base their opinions of literature on a book like this, no matter the quality of the book. I liked the cases where my opinions on books I had already read agreed with Newman's, but where they didn't I wasn't bothered. I don't think she was trying to be all 'my opinion is right!'. There's no substitute for reading the texts themselves and forming your own opinions. I would hope that people reading it would come away with an idea of which classic authors they would like to try. The book takes the 'scary' out of classics a bit, which would be valuable for a lot of people.
It's a shame the book didn't work out for you in the way you had hoped it would, it's always disappointing when that happens. Thanks for taking the time to visit and comment :)
In my case there is zero knowledge of Russian literature and I have a decent grasp of French literature. I might pick this up some time if I can find it at the library. I think a light read examining the classics might be fun.ReplyDelete
I'm the opposite of you then! French writers scare me much more than Russian ones do.Delete
Hmm, literature was never fun when I was studying. It was something serious and dark and depressing, and I always found it irritating that we used to think that the author has all these themes and philosophies hidden deep beneath his story. What if? What if the author never intended so? What if writers just wrote a story, and well the rest of this whole interconnectedness with world ambitions just non-existent? I like it therefore that you say that this book takes literature a little less seriously - much needed!ReplyDelete
To be honest, I agree with you - what if the author just wanted to write a story? Maybe in hundreds of years they will be examining paranormal romance for underlying messages? :PDelete
LOL!! Imagine! We could have such a thing indeed! The author just wanted to show the absurdity of human existence - reality isn't real, so paranormal is real, and well, you get the drift. ;-)Delete
I love this reply feature you have installed in Blogger. Is it built-in?
I'd be curious to know which writers you want to read and which you feel you can "let go."ReplyDelete
I reacted similarly to this book - there were some of her opinions I didn't agree with, but largely found it a fun overview of Western Lit. Her ratings didn't always make a lot of sense to me, but I wasn't really bothered. Any time you have a book list, or book ratings, it is very subjective (omissions and differences of opinion are to be expected) so I didn't expect it to be perfect...ended up enjoying it quite a bit.ReplyDelete
I really regret that I have never studied literature, just dappled on my own. A book like this might be just what I need to get a bit of extra knowledge to appreciate (some) literature even more. And I don't mind that the ratings might not match up to mine - it's just an opening to discuss it, right? :-)ReplyDelete