Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review: Beowulf on the Beach

by Jack Murnighan
Three Rivers Press
365 pages

I will warn you that I only skimmed this book and did not read it closely cover to cover. Although, to be honest, I wonder if that is not how the author originally intended this book to be enjoyed. Now of course any book that tries to pare literature down to only 50 top Greatest Hits is going to receive criticism: why include this book rather than that one? And the fact that Murnighan's list of ONLY 50 spans approximately 9th Century B. C. (with the Iliad) to 1987 A. D. (with Beloved) is certainly a daunting attempt. However, I found as I read the book that I was not trying to second guess the author, but I became more and more interested in his take on these particular works and how he is able to kindle a fire inside the reader to WANT to read these classics.

The writing style is light, humorous, and yet academically sound. Murnighan received his PhD in medieval and renaissance studies from Duke University and currently teaches creative nonfiction the University of the Arts in New York City. Each of the classic works receives a 5 page write-up (more or less) where the he gives the reader a hint of the original author's past, a brief synopsis of the novel in question, and then a formulaic review of the book according to these subheadings:
  • The Buzz: where he lists the one noteworthy fact that most readers associate with the novel.
  • What People Don't Know (but should): where he mentions a detail about the book, author, or both that readers have probably missed on their own
  • Best Line: where he quotes what he feels is the best line of the book - which is not necessarily the line that is most often quoted by others
  • What's Sexy: self-explanatory and a good attempt at keeping the general populace engaged in reading the classics.
  • Quirky Facts: again, a pertinent fact about the work or the author that while seemingly esoteric, is highly useful in engaging the reader to want to read the classic
  • What to Skip: the best part of the entire review! Can you believe it?! A literary academic who openly acknowledges that not every single word of a classic piece of fiction is worthy of reading. In some cases he only mentions a chapter or two; in other cases he mentions entire sections.
I found myself thoroughly enjoying the book, even if I didn't read it closely. I enjoyed reading his insights into books that I personally love, such as Pride and Prejudice:
Dashing Mr. Darcy, the "proudest, most disagreeable man in the world," seeks to ensnare the smart and independent Lizzy, precisely the kind of girl who would never fall for such a thing....

Such is the setup of Pride and Prejudice, and the standard logic suggests that if you want to ascertain if you will like a Jane Austen novel, you must simply think of your trips to the bathroom; if you typically find yourself sitting down, you will almost certainly like it; if you remain standing, perhaps the news is not so good. The truth of the matter, however, is that even those of us with prominent Adam's apples and that pesky Y-chromosome can enjoy Jane Austen, especially this her wittiest and probably finest book (at least the first two-thirds) --- page 158
And I found myself enjoying his summaries and reviews of books that I have been too fearful to attempt on my own, such as The Iliad:
Because the gods of irony still rule the firmament, Homer happens to be the name of both the pater familias Simpson, cartoon mainstay of the living room box, and the acknowledged father of Western literature, oft called greatest writer of all time......

The Iliad is still as riveting and potent as anything you'll ever read. The story is familiar: scads of Greek troops have sailed to Troy (a possibly fictitious city in what is now Turkey) to take back Helen, the West's first great beauty, whom the fair-haired Trojan prettyboy Paris wiped away from her husband, the trollish Greek prince Menelaus. But the siege isn't going so well; it's already lasted ten years and the Greeks' best fighter, Achilles, is pouting in his ship because he wasn't given the slave girl he wanted. We follow the give-and-take of the battle until Achilles finally gets off his sulking heinie, and then the proverbial hits the proverbial. (pages 3 and 4)
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not include his homage to Charles Dickens - and his appeal to all of us to re-read him in order to fully appreciate his greatness:
Fact is: I love Dickens, and so will you. Granted, you probably remember him as that dreaded homework double-whammy of boring and interminable, but that was high school, and there was no way you were old enough to get it. Try again now and you'll see that each of the novels is a complete page-turner full of suspense, good nature, and mirth. And they're hysterical - all of them. The most popular writer of the 19th-century England had an incredible lust for life that comes through in each of his books in virtually every line. He was smarter than all of us and saw people and society for what they were (with every blemish and hypocrisy skewered again and again), yet he was gibber-hearted than any of us too, and maintained belief in the souls of children and the good. Dickens wrote characters that crystallize his faith in man, that show us the way, that are so full of love that we end up being in love with them ourselves - all this in books teeming with plot twists and intrigue. If you like plot, if you like character, if you like comedy, if you like tragedy, if you like style, if you like insight, if you like social critique or a rollicking good time, you're going to love Dickens..... (pages 203-204)
All in all I would say that this is a great book for any bibliophile to skim - and if you are thinking of reading more classics in the future, this would make a great resource book to provide adequate preliminary information without any plot, character, or theme spoilers.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


  1. I can't even narrow down my favorite books of this year! I do enjoy books like this though. I've flipped through the 1000 Books to Read Before You Die, and also have had fun with the Shelf Discovery lists of the books we obsessed over as teens. I think you did a great job of summarizing for just browsing it!

  2. You experienced this book exactly as the author intended, I think. This is a book to pick up and peruse every few months. I also enjoyed his approach to the classics, and the format of his 'reviews' too!

  3. I'm reading this now. I've been reading it very slowly, reading about a chapter or two every couple of weeks or so. I've been enjoying, although I disagree with some of his assessments. For instance, I think "Pride and Prejudice" and "Jane Eyre" are better novels than he says they are, and that "Wuthering Heights" is not as a great as he writes. But, eh. To each his own, right? Still, it's an entertaining read and it's encouraged me to pick up a few classics I probably would have skipped.

  4. I agree with the idea that is remarkable that anyone could come up with a list of just 50 books. I want to look at this one just to see his picks!

  5. I have this sitting on my shelf, and I just use it as a reference tool. I love it!! I'm glad you've had such fun with it.


  6. I can't imagine putting together a list like that! This does sound like a book to be skimmed. Great review.


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