Books about Books Week: Beowulf on the Beach
26 August 2009
When I worked in a used bookstore we had a tiny little bookshelf by the front door that held dictionaries, some reference books, and a shelf that was labeled "Books on Books." That was one of my favorite shelves in the whole store. When the store closed (the owners moved; my lack of sales skills didn't do them in, although sales have never been my strong suit) the owners were going to get rid of that little bookcase, but I asked if I could take it. It's still in my house, still bearing its shelf label "Books on Books," and that shelf actually holds some books on books.
No point to that anecdote really, except that, like a lot of readers, I am drawn to books that are written about books. A case in point is Jack Murngihan's Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits. I've been reading a few chapters here and there and really enjoying this one. For one thing, if you haven't read a lot of "literature's greatest hits"--and I'm guilty of that, as I've never been able to handle the idea of actually reading Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Henry James, James Joyce, and a ton of others--it gives you a great idea of what these authors' classics are all about. I also like this guy because he pulls no punches. Take his advice about Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita:
"Lolita, Nabokov's ultrascandalous tale of a twelve-yearold nymphet and her degenerate adult admirer, needs next to no introduction. It's rightfully famous and beloved and has one of the greatest first thirds of any novel in any language, so the fact that the second two-thirds are repetitive and lackluster shouldn't bother us all that much, right? Though I fear the gods of literature might be training lightning bolts on my mortal skull as I type this, I can't not say it: I think Nabokov is overrated, and I think people forget how much Lolita falls off after the breathtaking beginning." (p. 327.)
Now that's a literature review! In addition to his brief summaries of the works, Murnaghan includes information about a book's "buzz," what readers don't know about the books in question, the best line, what's sexy about the book (his previous work of nonfiction, after all, was called The Naughty Bits), quirky facts, and what to skip. It's an informative little title,* and about a million times more fun than Pierre Bayard's "buzz" book from a few years back, How To Talk about Books You Haven't Read.
*And funny; I laughed out loud when I read this in the Jane Austen chapter: "If you are a woman, you're probably only reading this chapter to find out how it is that I like Jane Austen...," which is exactly what I was doing.