I’m not great at reading on ‘planes, and I thought (on my recent trip to the US) that it would be best to take a book I could read in short segments, rather than attempting to sustain a narrative. While rooting through my books-about-books shelf, I stumbled across Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits (2009) by Jack Murnighan. It was first suggested to me by an online friend, Sheila, and I put it on my Amazon wishlist – from where it was bought by my brother a few years ago. Thank you Colin, and thank you Sheila if you’re still reading SiaB!
I think there are two things most bloggers and bibliophiles think when they see a list of books: (1) yay! a list! (2) wait, how could they have missed out/included this/that… Well, Beowulf on the Beach is an extended exercise in both (1) and (2), tied together with Jack Murnighan’s very amusing style – so, of course, I loved it.
Let’s start with the gimmicks – and, no mistake, this is a very gimmicky book. It would have to be, really. Murnighan has selected the 50 ‘greatest hits’ of literature, and tells us what they’re about, what the ‘buzz’ is, the best line, fun facts, what’s sexy (!), and what to skip.
When I read, I hope the book will reach me in at least one of three places: where I zip, where I button a shirt, and where I put on a hat.
A neat sentence, and once which tells you the sort of literary scholar Murnighan is – one who isn’t afraid to talk about what is ‘sexy’. Yup, he’s not using the word to mean ‘the best bits’, he literally means ‘is there sex in this book?’ Which is obviously a bit silly, and very awkward when we get to Lolita, but… well, it’s a gimmick, as I said. Equally untenable is the ‘what to skip’ bit – perhaps it works when he’s talking about Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Homer’s Odyssey, but it’s pretty ridiculous to advise skipping huge chunks of a modern novel, which probably wouldn’t make sense.
But none of that really matters, because I don’t think Murnighan intends us to take those sections particularly seriously. What I really enjoyed is how Murnighan refuses to put on a scholarly voice, and instead brings out how enjoyable reading great works of literature can be.
Anna Karenina is like a sundae with a dollop of Madame Bovary as its base and a squeeze of melted Middlemarch poured over the top.
Since I’ve not read any of those three novels (well, the first hundred pages of the third), I can’t comment on the accuracy of Murnighan’s simile, but I love the idea of it nonetheless, and it is a good example of his lack of holy cows. Charles Dickens becomes Chuck, Murnighan refers to ‘zingers’, etc. etc. It’s all very informal, and great fun – but also very informative. Murnighan is nothing if not passionate about literature. Here’s part of what he has to say about One Hundred Years of Solitude:
Forget magic realism. Right now. If I hear you say the words, I’ll sneak up behind you with a piano-wire; I’m not kidding. Yes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is associated with that dimwit’s category (lumping him with the epigone Isabel Allende and other charlatans), but his imaginative leaps are the least important about this book. To reduce Garcia Marquez’s narrative genius to such an infantilizing pseudoconcept as magic realism is high treason in itself, but to allow that academic manure to be what people talk about regarding this novel, as if humanity doesn’t need to be sat down, as a whole, at grandpa Gabo’s knee and told what’s really important, that is utterly inexcusable. Literature classes have a sacred book on their hands and they make it sound like the trip journals of a peyote fiend. For shame.
Eeks. Truth be told, Murnighan’s tastes could scarcely be more different from mine. He says Paradise Lost is the best work ever written (I don’t even think it’s the best work Milton wrote beginning with the word ‘Paradise’), Moby Dick the best novel (snore), and Faulkner the best novelist (haven’t read any, but…). While he covers more of the globe than I do with my reading, there is a rather shameful paucity of female writers responsible for these 50 books – Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison. Of course, he is not to blame for the sidelining of women throughout literature’s history, but the inclusion of authors like Robert Musil, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy rather than (say) Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield, and Muriel Spark – all of whom have at least equal claim to canonicity – does speak some prejudice. Make no mistake, Murnighan is a big fan of overtly masculine, guns-and-big-themes literature, and proudly states it; we were never going to coincide in our literary tastes. (His chapter on Pride and Prejudice is, by the way, pretty poor… I don’t think he got the point, since he thinks it’s all about ‘romantic fantasies’, instead – as I would suggest – of being chiefly about self-knowledge.)
I was also left wondering whether Murnighan ever read anything that wasn’t canonical, since he seems to have read all fifty of these books dozens of times. Does he ever pick up something he’s never heard of, and discover an unexpected gem? That (as I’m sure you’ll be aware) is one of the greatest joys of the reader’s life.
But these are small criticisms for a book which, as I suggested at the beginning of this post, could only be found perfect by a bibliophile were that bibliophile to compile the list themselves. Whether or not you’ll use Beowulf on the Beach as a manual for the reading life, skipping the bits Murnighan advises against and bookmarking the sexy bits… well, I doubt you will – but any lover of literature will delight in a very witty, very intelligent, entirely biased and totally enthusiastic reader sharing those enthusiasms. A perfect Christmas present for the bibliophile in your life – and a perfect birthday present to me from Colin back in 2010.