Mercifully there has been one book throughout the past weeks that I had no problems finishing: Sandra Newman's FANTASTIC The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner.
And yes, it merits that capitalized FANTASTIC.
Never had time to read the classics? Running out of time to read the classics, and want to know which ones you should read, and why? Well, my friends, this is the book for you. Not only will you get the literary education you thought you might get in high school or college (but didn't), you will get a lot of laughs. Allow me to illustrate:
Recently, publishers have turned to spoon-feeding (Ulysses for Dummies--Extra-Dumb Edition); fear (1001 Books to Read or You'll Die!); and quirk (How Proust can Change Alain de Botton's Income) with some success. Even people who don't want to read the Great Books will read about the Great Books" (p. xi.)
And this, on "Paradise Lost" author John Milton:
"Milton had no sense of humor, wasn't good with women, and had Puritan attitudes toward drinking, theater, sex, and fun in general. So few things in Milton's life are interesting that you could count them on the fingers of one hand and still have enough fingers free to do ten things that are more fun than Milton ever had. However, he did write some of literature's most intellectually ambitious poetry, including the game-changing Paradise Lost." (p. 93.)
And, on Voltaire (about whom I know nothing, although I recognize the name):
"Voltaire has become the flagship writer of the French Enlightenment, although he is not the best writer, or the most radical writer, or the most read writer. It might just be because he has the best pen name. (Take note, Detroit: Is Voltaire not the perfect name for a compact electric car?)...
His downfall was that he was a born gadfly. He could make 'the' sound sarcastic. He could make scratching sound sarcastic. If he wrote a scene in which a priest had sex with a woman, it somehow implied that priests were all sex creeps. Meanwhile, even Voltaire didn't believe this literally. He just couldn't help himself when a gadfly thought came into his head. He was once told, 'No matter what you write, you will never succeed in destroying the Christian religion.' He replied, 'We'll see about that.'" (p. 128.)
I'm not even finding the best quotes for you, but it doesn't matter, because the whole book is just one sparkling little literary biography and bibliography after another. Newman also helpfully lists each author's best known works and gives them number scores based on "Importance," "Accessibility," and "Fun," so you know which works to start with if you do want to start reading through the Western canon.
Or, if you're not up for that? This book will certainly give you enough information and context on the Great Books that you will be able to credibly fake that you have read them. But perhaps most importantly, this is just an effortless read. A "10," as far as I'm concerned, on both Accessibility and Fun.