Title: Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits
Author: Jack Murnighan
Genre: Non-fiction, books on books
Publisher: Three Rivers Press
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
First line: What, you weren’t planning on packing Beowulf with your flip-flops and sunscreen?
I remember seeing reviews of Beowulf on the Beach last summer, and so when I came across it on a visit to Auntie’s Bookstore this spring, I picked up my own copy. I am so glad I did – Murnighan loves literature, and has a way of making his readers rethink preconceived notions about the classics. In fact, he’s convinced me to read several books that I thought I had no interest in at all.
The book has chapters on fifty different classics, with an introduction and then the following sections: The Buzz; What People Don’t Know (But Should); Best Line; What’s Sexy; Quirky Fact; and What to Skip. Each of the chapters are delivered in Murnighan’s witty writing style. He believes that these books have been ruined by literature classes, and by the fact that we try to read them either before we are ready, or before we understand what they are truly about.
These books are dazzling, but that’s not how they’re normally taught or perceived. And if you don’t go back to the classics as an adult, you might not ever know how much better they are when they’re read for pleasure, not for a test. As long as the so-called great books stay locked in the ivory tower, people don’t see how gripping and meaningful they can be, and their kaleidoscopic glories get squandered.
Murnighan knows how to break a book down to its basics, as demonstrated by these comments on The Iliad:
It’s a bit sad and bracing, actually, to find out that Achilles the great warrior really wins his battles less because of the strength of his arm or the trueness of his spear and more because higher forces come to his aid. In what many people think is the greatest tale of heroism and unmitigated studliness, it turns out that humans are just Cabbage Patch Kids tossed around by bratty, vindictive gods that hardly deserve the name.
He also knows how to find the hidden humor, like in Moby Dick:
Ishmael, as it should happen, proves to be the genial, desperado philosopher extraordinaire. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find his equal anywhere in the history of literature. One tiny example should suffice. On the fourth page of the novel proper, having already told us that he’s a little down on his luck and light in the purse, he makes the stoical aside that “in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern” – sound philosophy from a hard-luck sailor. But then he qualifies his sobering truism by saying, “That is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim.” Subtle joke, easy to miss, for you’re probably thinking Pythagorus, who’s that? Oh, yeah, a-squared plus b-squared equals c-squared. But that’s not the Pythagorean maxim he’s talking about. What you need to know (and sadly this isn’t explained in most editions) is that there is a two word fragment of Pythagoras’ writings that simply says: Avoid beans. This is the maxim Ishmael’s referring to, with all its wind-from-astern implications, thereby creating what might be the highest-brow fart joke ever told.
He also has keen insight into the authors:
The greatest impediment, however, to the appreciation of Ulysses is, sadly, Mr. James Joyce. I get the sense that Joyce was one of those guys whose cerebral gifts were indisputable to everyone but himself, and, like a lot of such boys, he felt the need to show them off again and again and again. Much of Ulysses is simply an intricate puppet show, with each little doll repeating, “The author’s brilliant; the author’s brilliant.” This is both the tragedy and irony of the novel, for if you take away all Joyce’s esoteric and occultating parodies, impersonations, games, and machinations (all, again, in the service of showing you how protean his pen was), what’s left is the book’s spun gold – and one of the sweetest, most human things you could ever read.
I did find, though, that even Murnighan’s wry observations weren’t enough to make me change my mind about the majority of modern classics. I still cannot foresee a lifetime in which I will ever want to read Gravity’s Rainbow or Lolita. That is not Murnighan’s fault, though, and more a matter of taste. If you like to read books about books, or are looking for a guide to literature’s classics, Beowulf on the Beach is the perfect read.