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Being a massive book nerd is finally socially acceptable

May 28, 2012

So, while I was jet setting, I also had my birthday (kind of. I got presents. In advance. Which counts). One of the presents I got from my parents (the other was, awesomely, a dot com. and So exciting. So much pressure) was Western Lit Survival Kit: How to read the classics without fear, by Sandra Newman.

Now, I know most of you must be thinking “How rude! Obviously Hannah has read all the classics, or very nearly! And those she hasn’t she would never fear! She is fearless when it comes to literature! (and has really boringly obvious taste)”, right? Right.

Clearly me.


I hugely, immensely enjoyed Caitlin Moran’s How to be a WomanAnd obviously (obviously, right?) I know how to be a woman. So it should be no different reading a book telling me to have no fear face to face with the classics. Also, reading the classics is much like being a woman. Pretty much self-explanatory, and people have been doing for aeons, but still everyone is making such a massive fuss about doing it. (Much like other things I could think about as well, actually). 

So I dove in, headfirst. And guess what.


This woman is hilarious. About everything. (actually, she is funnier about stuff the older it is. Maybe easier, politically speaking, to take the piss out of Chaucer than out of some modernist, people who love modernism are so holier-than-thou they might start a hate campaign: How dare dare emotion dare you you how dare time how memory fade dare you stein dare dare you genius no stein. Punchy.)

So here, for example, on Athenian Old Comedy:

Really not funny.

Really not funny.

Aristophanes (446-386 B.C) is a deadly cocktail of bawdiness, toilet humor, political satire , and men being hit with sticks. In his plays, what all these ingredients have in common is that they’re not funny. While Aristophanes can be surprisingly contemporary and clever, it is always in a way that adroitly avoids humor.

See? Informative, clever, and funny.

Newman covers every part of the canon, from the abovementioned Old Comedy, to the also abovementioned Modernism. Sensibly, she mainly stays away from the 20th century, as that is one hot mess of things that may very well turn out to be terrible in hindsight. And one wouldn’t want to be seen to endorse that (imagine how embarrassing if one publicly said one enjoyed, say, Ian McEwan, and thought him a beacon of 20th century brilliance … oh, wait #booker).

On the way, she includes chapters such as

Here Come the Puritans: Parade, Meet Rain.


Unwelcome Realism: The French and Russians Team Up to Depress Mankind

 And, of course it helps that I share her opinions on large parts of the Canon. Like Beowulf. It is awesome. A “speardane” rips the arm off some green monster who lives in a cave with his mum. His mum goes off to avenge him. Beowulf follows her to her swampy underwater cave (and can miraculously breathe underwater for days on end), and in the end, as Newman so adroitly puts it:

Monsters who keep a loaded sword in the lair for self-defense are much more likely to be killed by intruders


This books will make you want to read the (good) classics you haven’t read, make you feel clever but not smug about having read the ones you have read, make you want to re-read your favourites, without feeling smarmy and all “I’m just casually reading Kafka on the tube IN YOUR FACE LOSER READING GAME OF THRONES“.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 28, 2012 9:54 pm

    This book looks really cool! BTW just finished book one of Game of Thrones and loved it… I have been ensnared. 🙂

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