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Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits

3.57  ·  Rating details ·  588 Ratings  ·  125 Reviews
Feel bad about not reading or not enjoying the so-called great books? Don’t sweat it, it’s not your fault. Did anyone tell you that Anna Karenina is a beach read, that Dickens is hilarious, that the Iliad’s battle scenes rival Hollywood’s for gore, or that Joyce is at his best when he’s talking about booze, sex, or organ meats?

Writer and professor Jack Murnighan says it’s
Paperback, 374 pages
Published May 19th 2009 by Broadway Books (first published 2009)
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Nov 29, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
It's perhaps inevitable that I wouldn't get on with this book, for three reasons. One, I'm an academic type. Two, Beowulf genuinely is my idea of a beach read. Three, in his words, I sit down to pee.

No, no. I don't mean that in a derogatory, 'women always argue' way. I mean that Jack Murnighan keeps going on about 'Man Lit', and how amaaaazing it is that he managed to find anything worth reading in Pride and Prejudice, and how all women are going to be all starry-eyed over Darcy, and whatever.

Alternately engaging and infuriating; I talked back to this book a lot while reading it. Murnighan has an unfortunate tendency to reduce works to male and female literature. (Men won't like Pride and Prejudice, especially the last third of the book; women won't like Beowulf. [Okay, to be fair, he doesn't actually come out and say the second bit, but here is what he says: "If there's such a thing as Man Lit, this is it: a plot-driven, action-brimming, hero-of-heroes story line, man vs. monster, b ...more
Feb 09, 2017 rated it it was ok
Well, I'm glad I didn't read it with the intention of adding any of these 'classics' to my to-read lists. The author actually turned me off of the few that I had been considering, as he made sure to brag on all the gory violence, skanky sex, and self-indulgent despair so prevalent in most.

I did read it to see if I could be persuaded that any are ones that I should feel a twinge of guilt for not reading, or any that I would consider recommending to friends who want to accomplish the reading of a
May 23, 2014 rated it liked it
Murnighan is also the author of a book called The Naughty Bits: The Steamiest and Most Scandalous Sex Scenes from the World's Great Books, and that tells you a lot about him. Murnighan is the guy who considers himself "the cool professor" at your college. His mission here is to take some books traditionally considered old, crusty, impenetrable and boring, and convince you that in fact they are cool.

This is a lovely idea, and of course he's right. Sometimes. I mean, no, the Old Testament is not c
Jun 07, 2009 rated it did not like it
I really, really wanted to like this book. As a reader, and a reader of the classics, I thought that it would be fun and interesting to read about which books the author deemed worthy and to read why he thought others were unworthy. A mistake I made, and it was my mistake, was to misread the title. I thought the author would tell me which novels as a whole to skip from his list of 50. Not so, instead he tells you which parts within the works to skip. I cannot even begin to say how offensive I fo ...more
May 24, 2009 is currently reading it
OMG...I don't know if it is my teaching background or love of classics, but it doesn't matter. This book is making me giggle madly. I am cornering my children and reading sections aloud to them. I'm only a little ways into it, but I have a total crush on this book. Each section is about a classic summarized, broken down, digested and spit back out in a way you've never heard before. For instance, on The Old Testament under Quirky Fact:

The Old Testament is probably the greatest compendium of quir
Sarahlynn Lester
May 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
I've been reading this one for nearly a year and will probably finish this summer. I think that's the perfect pace for this book; if I read too quickly the chapters merge together in my mind I begin to confuse James Joyce with Thomas Mann. This is a fabulous book and I might loan out my copy but I'll never give it away.
James Payne
Apr 02, 2011 rated it did not like it
The author's voice made me miserable. He is fond of perpetuating gender stereotypes and does so throughout the book. For example, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Woman like Pride and Prejudice and dudes totally don't!" I guess I'm pretty embarrassed that I read this. I feel like I debased myself in some way. The author also repeatedly referred to how arduous the writing of the book was, which to me seems sort of inexplicable. No entry is very in-depth, and it's rare to read something in it that a Wi ...more
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
I do not think there could be a person on earth (1) who obviously loves reading as much as I do, yet (2) who has completely and totally opposite reading tastes.

Let me make one thing clear: Jack is a GUY. He is looking for action in books. Plot. Fighting. Killing. Plunder. You know. That sort of stuff.
I could care less about plot. I want to get inside people’s heads. I want to understand people. A group of intriguing people, sitting around in chairs, talking? Excellent book for me.
So Beowulf at
Jen B
Apr 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own, 2013
This book has found its way onto my bookshelf at school alongside To Kill A Mockingbird, Romeo & Juliet, and the other high school staples I teach. I have loved using it to teach literary criticism and analysis this year. The author has such a funny, modern voice that most of my students really enjoyed reading his interpretations of books that they (and sometimes I) thought were boring. I have not read all of the books listed in Murnighan's 50 greatest hits, but I'm going to add a few of the ...more
Aug 24, 2014 rated it liked it
WHAT TO LOVE: The "Best Lines" sections
WHAT TO SKIP: Any section with the label "What's Sexy?" (ugh), any section where the words "Gabriel Garcia Marquez" appear, the weird and completely unqualified rant against neuroscience lurking somewhere in the middle of the book
WHAT TO KNOW: Murnighan doesn't tell you what books to skip, but what passages to skip within each book, which for most of the entries was unnecessary and frustrating
Dec 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
One of the most common assumptions people make about my choice of career is that I am as well-read as my job description implies, and because of that, I have a reason to be - even an obligation to be - snooty about my reading choices, and make equally snooty declarations regarding any literary work I come across. These people look at me and titter, and say that I must have read the Russian novelists and enjoyed them, or that I must find Joyce and Woolf exceedingly enlightening reads.

But I do not
May 21, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Rating: A-

Summary: Dr. Smarty Pants (aka, the down-to-earth Jack Murnighan) gives you a low-down on 50 of the world's greatest books. He tells you what's sexy, what's skip-able, and why this book will rock your world if you'll just give it a chance. He aims to bring the lofty and esoteric of literature down to the huddled masses of the world so we can enjoy it too.

Review: I do admit that I have a fondness (and maybe a little bit of a crush) on this author. I mean it, let's get real, what guy was
May 22, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: books-on-books
This book was not quite what I had expected. It did serve two purposes for me-- a review of lit. that I don't actually intend to re-read, and some teasers that encourage me to read some that I hadn't read yet. Otherwise, I found myself irritated a lot of the time. The author doesn't seem to have a grasp of his audience really. He includes a "What's Sexy" category in each review, and honestly, he uses that section to reveal when and if there is sex happening in the work. I submit to you, the fact ...more
Kaylee Burns
Jan 11, 2010 rated it liked it
Well this certainly was a very interesting novel. I learned a little bit about several of the "50 Greatest Pieces of Literature" but it was really only his opinion on things. It gave an adequate description of the novels and made even some of them sound interesting, but all in all I was thoroughly bored. The book was easy to read but I felt like I was just reading it page by page just to get through it. The bible review did intrigue me a bit. His fascination of the Songs of Solomon really seemed ...more
Jun 16, 2009 rated it liked it
By the end, I felt it was worth reading this book because I managed to get a couple good points, the beginning was painful. Despite the marketing of essentially bringing classic literature to the masses, the author is constantly making difficult word choices in his writing (I read quite a bit and there were a lot of words that I had never seen before, let alone just didn't know what they meant). I agree with the another reviewer that his choices left something to be desired on the whole and that ...more
Jun 10, 2009 rated it really liked it
Although he sometimes becomes rather too enamored of his own vocabulary, Murnighan pretty much hits the nail on the head with most of the books he reviews. And he's funny and easy to read. I was rather relieved to hear a PhD in Medieval and Renaissance Literature say that there are parts to the "great" novels that aren't so great; especially when he called the main character in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a "simmpering dork". I'd always thought of him as an annoying twit ...more
This is a really fun book. The author, a writer and professor, sets out to tell us why the books we read in high school or college, are so much better read as adults. Murnighan chooses 50 books from The Iliad to Toni Morrison's Beloved, with 48 classics in between.

With a wicked sense of humor, Murnighan gives us a challenge, "let's give literature another look, but this time we'll enjoy ourselves." He writes of Moby Dick that it is one of the funniest books of all time, and that "Chaucer gets a
May 26, 2009 rated it liked it
I don't recommend reading this book front to back but it's fun to read in pieces. Murnighan provides a synopsis of each book and author and is kind enough to give lots of detail and what parts to skip over. I learned something in just about in all 50 segments. Unfortunately, I still won't be rushing to read Moby Dick or Proust but that's hardly his fault.

I will say read this book with a dictionary handy. I thought I had a reasonably wide vocabulary but Murnighan throwing around fancy words like
Sarah B
Oct 20, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: 36-books
Really a 3.5 star book. I enjoyed this, and I appreciated the effort it took to put this together. I do not read as an academic, plot is almost always more important in my reading than the language and allegorical meaning, so I like the way he laid out ways to read deeper into the works. After reading this, I definitely have some classics to add to the list , and some to leave off. Not bad.
Jun 17, 2009 marked it as unfinished
Shelves: 2009-reads
I heard an interview with the author on NPR one morning while heading to the farmer's market.

So far, I have enjoyed the book. I'm not sure that it's a "read straight through" book but is more of a reference to come back to at various times.
Christina (Boupie)
Jul 16, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who wants to get excited about reading the classics
This is a very entertaining book (if you can look past his some what biases choice of classics). He did what he set out to do and entertained along the way. Like all good literature professors his aim is to get you to want to read the classics, to get excited about them, and ultimately take something away from them. His choice of classics I will relate at the bottom (more for me than for your benefit) and not all of them seemed like classics to me, but all of them sounded interesting enough I mi ...more
May 31, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: library

This book definitely accomplishes its goal of making the reader want to explore the classics. Before becoming too exasperated about the omissions from “Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits” (Count of Monte Cristo doesn’t make the cut?? Come on!!), I stopped myself and read the “Note on the Selections” in the appendix. There, Murnighan writes, “It was clearly an impossible task, and no matter what I chose, it still felt like taking spoonsful out of an ocean” (363). I calmed down a bit, but still would l
Aug 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, 2017
One of the all time best nonfiction books I have ever read! It was like reading 50 books, multiple times each, and then absorbing all that experience into my gut. Plus, being entertained by the descriptions with dollops of extra amusement. Wow! I wish he had chosen 500 books instead of a mere 50.

Also, this book significantly increased my library list of books on reserve (which wasn't short to begin with).

Also also, it was like having a conversation (or occasionally argument, for I stand very dif
Jun 29, 2011 rated it liked it
I read Beowulf on the Beach for a couple of reasons - because I liked the title, I like books about books/reading, I wanted to hear what the author thought about some of MY favorite books, and I wanted to add to my TBR list. In no specific order, here are my thoughts, and then (be forewarned) I'm going to make some lists.

-A lot of other reviewers complained about the author's macho dude perspective, particularly in referring to Beowulf as man-lit (I think it was Beowulf, might have been somethin
Troy Jeffcoat
Nov 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
I first heard about this book on the podcast Books on the Nightstand. They talked about how it will movitivate you to rethink the classics. They even made a summer reading challenge around reading 4 classics during the summer. I didn't hear the podcast in time to be a part of the challenge, but I did find it interesting enough to pick up and read in about a week. I enjoyed the discussion topics and how Murnighan layed each book by the buzz, what's sexy, best line, what you don't know but should. ...more
Sep 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
"Let's give literature another look, but this time we'll enjoy ourselves. And I don't just mean above the ears; I want you to feel these books in your heart, in your soul, and maybe even below your waist. I myself am a recovering academic (it's a tough twelve-step program), but since the day I took off my tweed, I've been on a mission to appreciate the classics for their deep humanity and wonder. And trust me, if you read any or all of the books I'm championing here, you'll be shocked at what yo ...more
Dylan Popowicz
Jul 24, 2011 rated it it was ok
[Printed in the Sacramento Book Review: ]

I was skeptical about this book, presuming it to be yet another list of the “greatest” novels, what they’re about, why you should or shouldn’t read them, etc. And Beowulf on the Beach really is just that, but Murnigham pulls off the over-done “book on books” concept with a flair that you might not find anywhere else.

Firstly, everything is described and allocated its value through a liberal dousing of common (but ca
Jun 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
A Beach Read

This is a light-hearted book about books, written in a conversational style. It served as an important addition to my summer reading, as I needed something with short chapters and sections to read while supervising my children in the kiddie pool. I enjoyed Murnighan's candid descriptions of the books featured--finding classics to add to my reading list and a few to cross off. Murnighan is honest about the books he features, and it's obvious that his clear favorites are Moby Dick and
Oct 01, 2012 rated it liked it
I appreciate what author Jack Murnighan was trying to do with this book. I wish he would stuck to the better known classics that we all have probably stayed away from thanks to high school, though. The whole purpose it would seem is to get us to read what we have all heard about but have cringed away from for one reason or another.

Each classic is reviewed with some commentary by the author, a breakdown about what's good, bad, and sexy in each classic. He even adds a "What to Skip" section where
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Smalltown Hoosier by birth, central-Illinoisan till college, then some semiotics at Brown, an Orwellian stint in Paris, a Ph.D. in Medieval Lit from Duke, and finally New York's Chinatown. And now that i've hauled all my books to my 6th-floor walk-up, i'm staying put.
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