Emily O's Reviews > The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner

The Western Lit Survival Kit by Sandra Newman
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's review
Dec 02, 12

did not like it
bookshelves: non-fiction, women-authors
Recommended to Emily by: hype
Recommended for: no-one, especially not students
I own a copy

If you know me, you know that I am a big classics reader, so I thought that it would be fun to get The Western Lit Survival Kit and get a few laughs out of summaries and ratings she gives. As soon as I got the book, I opened to some classic books that I'd already read, just to get a taste for how she writes and what she's like. To put it lightly, I was not pleased, and my unhappiness with this book grew the more I read. (If you don't like negative reviews, you should just stop now. You have been warned.)

The idea behind this book isn't bad. She has a section for each author where she gives some basic info on their biography, style, subject matter, and whatever literary movements they were involved in. Then she talks about a few of their most well-known works, and ends with a chart that rates each book by that author for importance, accessibility, and fun, on a scale of 1-10. The idea is that if I wanted to read some Hemingway, but I didn't know which book to chose, I could go to the Hemingway section, read a little about him, get a summary of some of his books, and decide which of them to read based on the summaries and ratings. It sounds fun, right? Well, while it works in theory, in practice this book absolutely fails on all fronts. Let me give you some examples.

First, her summaries and comparisons of books are very often not true, or based entirely on her (very strange) opinion. You all know how much I love T.S. Eliot, so naturally I read his section to see what she would say. First of all, she doesn't even mention his plays. Secondly, she describes the Four Quartets only in terms of Eliot's religious beliefs, when any research at all would have shown her that they are definitely about more than that. Her description of the Quartets, one of the most transcendent and ecstatic poems I've ever read, and one of my favorites, ends with "Okay, it's boring." Wow, thanks for the informed and nuanced commentary. But hey, at least she says Prufrock is wonderful, right?

Look, I understand. Not everyone likes T.S. Eliot like I do. Knowing this, I flipped back toward the Whitman section, in hopes that maybe he fit her taste better. She again calls him boring. Whitman, who was excited about everything, boring! She says that Whitman is best read in small doses while Dickinson is best read in large bunches, which is exactly the opposite of how the two should be read, in my opinion. She also spends 3 out of her 5 paragraphs on Whitman wondering whether or not he was gay. While that may be an interesting question, and while it is relevant to his poetry (though again she misses the fact that it's his own soul he's talking about in that one part of Song of Myself, not another person) there is not reason to spend over half of your very short allotted space on Whitman musing about his sexuality. That is just wasteful and absurd. I would hate to see someone base their poetry reading on such lopsided and sometimes downright mistaken commentary.

But hey, maybe she just isn't good at poetry in general. Maybe she will make more sense when she writes about prose. Sadly, no. She completely dismisses Poe's short stories as boring. Boring, seriously? Attack the quality of the writing if you want, but they are anything but boring. She dismisses Heart of Darkness as having "prose excess" and too much "emoting," and says that Ulysses is a novel full of "bad ideas," which only works because of Joyce's personality. What? She also says that Anne Bronte's only contribution was being "the pretty one." I'm sorry, but when it comes to both poetry and prose, Sandra Newman doesn't know what she's talking about. What made her think she was qualified enough to write a book on the subject?

If you want more concrete examples of why this book is entirely useless, you need only to look at the accessibility rating. I honestly don't think she knows what the word means. Accessibility should mean how easy the book is to read for people who don't read the classics as their career. How readable is the book? How difficult? Is the language old or dense? Does it take work? So, lets compare some of her accessibility ratings, and see which books she thinks are easy or hard to read, shall we?

Kipling: 0 (Including the novels she said were interesting to 10-year-olds. What?)
Ulysses and Finnegans Wake: 1 (No, Finnegans Wake is more difficult than Ulysses)
King Lear: 2
The Sound and the Fury: 3
Macbeth: 3
W.B. Yeats: 4 (As difficult as The Four Quartets? Harder than The Waste Land?)
Heart of Darkness: 4
The Four Quartets: 4
Leaves of Grass: 5 (Harder than The Waste Land and The Inferno? Really?)
Romeo and Juliet: 5
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 5
The Waste Land and Prufrock: 6 (No, The Waste Land is harder than Prufrock.)
The Inferno: 6
A Tale of Two Cities: 7
The Great Gatsby: 7
War and Peace: 7
The Sun Also Rises: 8
Candide: 9 (Really? Easier than Fitzgerald and Hemingway?)
Anna Karenina: 10
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: 10
Pride and Prejudice: 10

Basically, and I cannot say this emphatically enough, Sandra Newman has no idea what she's talking about. While some of her writing is humorous, her summaries of works and authors are too busy trying to be hip, snarky, or funny to bother being accurate or informative at all. Her accessibility ratings makes absolutely no sense, and her ratings for fun aren't really that much better. I absolutely dread the idea of this book falling into the hands of any students, for fear of the irrevocable damage that it might do both to their understanding of literature and to their brains as a whole.

Rating: 1
Recommendations: Do not waste your time on it, and for the love of all that is good, do not give this to a student.

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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Ashleigh (new)

Ashleigh I totally would have wated my time buying this book because I often feel a bit lot when picking up classics to read, I realise now I would be better off simply reading some reviews on here :) Thanks for saving my pennies and time.

message 2: by Ashleigh (new)

Ashleigh ps sorry my S key had something jammed under it when I wrote that haha.

message 3: by Theresa (last edited Dec 03, 2012 06:22PM) (new)

Theresa Wow. Those accessibility ratings make no sense whatsoever. None.
And Poe is BORING??? What the heck?

message 4: by Theresa (new)

Theresa "She says that Whitman is best read in small doses while Dickinson is best read in large bunches..."
Oh, for God's sake! Is this woman completely nuts?

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