Personal Great Books · Reading

Completed: Beowulf on the Beach

My reading seems to be outpacing my ability to post about it, a problem I am grateful to have! Some weeks ago I finished Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits by Jack Murnighan. I originally picked it up at the library, merely hoping that it would encourage me to get back to the classics, to read more. It did so, and then some. (Indeed, this book is in part responsible for my recent reflections on what books I wish to read.) I didn’t except to so thoroughly enjoy reading about other books, however, but I found this book every bit as engaging as a good suspense novel.

Murnighan writes in a slightly informal, sometimes irreverent style, and isn’t afraid to use humor or pop culture to grab our attention. For example, when discussing Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, he states, “What you’re after is a feeling of communion, a little Vulcan mind-meld, as it were.”

He’s not afraid to tell the reader to skip parts of books—often substantial portions—although, I confess that I would feel slightly underhanded if I told someone that I had read a book, when really, I had skipped over entire pages of it. On the other hand, by his definition/instructions I could say I’ve actually read Don Quixote, as I managed to read the entirety of Part One and portions of Part Two (primarily the opening and ending chapters). Hmmm…maybe I like this philosophy!

There were a number of books I had never heard of, mostly of a more recent vintage. For example, The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil or Blood Meridian and Suttree by Cormac McCarthy—these last two despite the fact that I have read All the Pretty Horses. Most, however, were familiar titles; some I’ve read, others are on my “to-be-read” list.

As with any list, the titles chosen are somewhat subjective, as Murnighan acknowledges in “A Note on the Selections” at the end of the book. Reading through the book, I’m not sure that I would wish to read all of them, but there are some I was unfamiliar with or only vaguely aware of that I now wish to try. After Murnighan’s enthusiams over One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I loved, I am strongly inclined to try some of the others he lists as his personal favorites: The Autumn of the Patriarch (García Márquez) and Suttree (McCarthy) most specifically. I am also strongly intrigued by Native Son, which I’d heard of, but didn’t really know anything about.

Other than the pure enjoyment, I also gained from this book a slight sense of my own inadequacy as a reader (mentioned previously). Murnighan clearly loves the great books, both antique and new, and enjoys them not merely for story or characters, but for the very words which compose the works. In the discussion of each selection, he quotes the “best lines” as well as other passages or phrases that he considers great. I especially noticed in the reviews of the poetic works (Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, etc.) that he dwelled on the words and the depths beyond them. I am afraid I tend only to be a surface reader. This perhaps is why I do not have the appreciation for poetry that many others have. I lack the patience to sit with a work and dig into its depths. I would like to work on this aspect of my reading; if I have gained nothing else from reading Beowulf on the Beach, I hope to learn to be a better reader.

Since there’s nothing like starting out in the deep end (which seems often to be the way I do things), I’ll be starting out with Inferno (Dante): epic poetry, from the early 14th century (with the added challenge of the Italian original to ignore on the facing pages of my copy). This will definitely be a pay-attention-to-the-words sort of book. I have to admit, I’m really looking forward to the challenge.

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