While I usually like to review books as they stand on their own, I have a pair of books that beg to be compared/contrasted. I have embarked on a mission to read more of the “classics” and not just current fiction and non-fiction--I blogged my way through Gulliver’s Travels and enjoyed the journey. My next endeavor is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I found two different books I thought would be helpful in my quest: The Western Lit Survival Kit by Sandra Newman and How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. While they do have different foci (or focuses--you can choose), both of them discuss a wide range of canonical (a lot of educated people agreed these were worthwhile) texts. They also have different formats but my goal was to learn more about the classic books and how to read them without getting lost, bored, or comatose.
The Western Lit book does have a wider-ranging scope in terms of timeline, spanning the beginning of written stories and ending in the 20th century with William Faulkner. How to Read Literature takes the approach of different plot devices and how to read the bigger picture. What I found the most interesting is each author’s voice and approach to the subject matter.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines seemed to me like talking to someone who teaches and enjoys literature and does his best to want you to understand and like it, too. It was a fairly easy read that still had very interesting content that really made sense and stuck with me. With just the short introduction, Foster lets you know what he’s doing and how he does it; memory, symbol and pattern are just the mechanics and what follows tells you how these tools are used in understanding stories. Each of the chapters is a digestible bite of information with lots of examples. Foster even discusses how the same type of symbol can be used in different ways. For example, Chapters 2 and 3 discuss eating. However, Chapter 2 is entitled “Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion” and Chapter 3 is “Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires”. He brings you out of the actual symbol of eating and into the bigger picture; is this an example of people becoming closer together because they are sharing a meal or is it an example of an unhealthy relationship which drains the life out of another character? He also explores the Bible and religious connotations, violence, weather, flight, illness and my favorite, irony. With each section, he brings a lot of examples from different types of stories to support what he’s talking about. Books are not the only focus, either, he uses short stories, poems and even movies to make is points. By the time I was done with the book, I felt excited and ready to work on a new book and actively look for the bigger meanings. According to the bio, Foster is a professor at University of Michigan at Flint and if I were in the area, I’d take a class from him in a heartbeat!
Now, the Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner has a completely different tone and doesn’t address irony directly, it employs it liberally throughout the text and dares you to identify it. The book does what is says and traces the accepted canonical literature from Homer through the 20th century and discusses the general age, the specific authors and chosen texts from each one. While the sections are informative and contain all the information needed to identify and follow the texts, the major component I wasn’t happy with was the embedded sarcasm. While I do like irony, sarcasm and the odd cutting remark, this entire book was rife with all of these. This was less a guide to take you through the literature of the ages and introduce you to great authors and more an inside joke for people who have already read most of the literature and are ready to make jokes nobody else understands. For the books discussed that I had read, I could understand and almost enjoy the cutting style of writing but for the rest all I could think of was: why did she [Newman] even major in English if these are all such awful books. I don’t even want to read any of these (except for Gargantua and Pantagruel which was written by a monk in the Renaissance and apparently is a marvel of humor scattering material about theology, natural science and more throughout a story mostly consisting of potty humor, sex and drunkeness. I am intrigued by how this might be depicted in such a distant society) supposedly classic books. If you have read many of these books, you will probably enjoy the humor found in these pages. One helpful tool I did find was the somewhat qualitative measurement of each set of titles according to the importance of the book in the canon, its accessibility for readers, and measurement of fun-ness.
What a difference between two authors discussing literature!
Now, as a post script: Both of these authors devote chapters to Shakespeare who is reported to be the best of everything when it comes to stories, literature, humor and drama. Being a modern citizen of the U.S., I have found that Shakespeare requires a lot of work and only some things are worth the effort. However, I am encouraged by a few helpful tools. For one, I saw the recorded version of the on-stage production of the Reduced Shakespeare Company which manages to touch on every Shakespeare title in a lively and hilarious 1.5 hours. And, my next endeavor to introduce the style of Shakespeare to my kids is a book I thumbed through at the airport bookstore: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher, “Verily, A New Hope”. I’ll let you know how that goes when we’re done!