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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits » User review

Fall in Love with the Classics One Giggle at a Time

  • Dec 10, 2010
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I’ve always considered myself to be pretty well read, but in the years since I graduated from college, I’ve begun to realize exactly how many of the classics I missed out on, and I’ve been looking for a way to incorporate more of them into my reading. I want to re-read some of the ones that I didn’t quite “get” as a teenager, revisit the ones that left indelible impressions, and fill in the gaps by (finally) picking up the ones I’ve always been ashamed to admit I haven’t read.

Maybe you’re like me, or maybe you don’t exactly want to read the classics, but you want to want to.  Whatever the case, look no further. Jack Murnighan’s Beowulf on the Beach is the perfect motivator and companion for your journey. The subtitle—What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits—says it all. Murnighan, a writer and literature professor with a Ph.D. in medieval and renaissance works, tells it like it is. He loves the books he’s selected, and he wants to spread the love and help readers understand and appreciate why the classics are so important. 

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 never 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 up in the ivory tower, people don’t see how gripping and meaningful they can be, and their kaleidoscopic glories get squandered.

Murnighan breaks his discussion of each book into six sections: The Buzz, What People Don’t Know (But Should), Best Line, What’s Sexy, Quirky Fact, and What to Skip. This organization gives the book a nice structure, and I found myself looking forward to discovering what he’d have to say about each book. Although I was initially skeptical about the What to Skip section—I’m a ‘read every word’ reader and don’t believe in skimming—I quickly came to appreciate the value in Murnighan’s honest approach and his great sense of humor.

I mean, really. How can you not like someone who is willing to describe Odysseus’s wife Penelope as someone who has a “myriad of suitors trying to get some of dat,” or who tells you up front that “what the Old Testament lacks in conventional reader-friendliness it more than makes up for in diversity and sheer, fascinating, almost incalculable weirdness”? And that’s just in the first twenty pages!

Throughout Beowulf on the Beach, Murnighan is funny, irreverent (he refers to Jesus as “His Shagginess” at one point), and passionately committed to the cause of converting readers to the classics. He reminds us of the importance of reading slowly, digesting each work line by line, and re-reading when it’s necessary. His love for these great books is palpable and impossible to ignore, and he wants us to learn how to read them in a way that will make us love them just as much as he does.

I set out to read Beowulf on the Beach as a companion to Jane Eyre, which I’ve chosen for the BoB-themed summer reading challenge hosted by Ann and Michael of Books on the Nightstand. I figured I’d enjoy the book, knock a previously unread classic off my list, and move right along. Instead, I’m walking away with a lengthy list of books that, for one reason or another, I’ve never read and now feel prepared to tackle and a renewed desire to re-read some of the ones I’ve loved.

Murnighan says that “if there is a single classic that deserves a second chance now that you’re an adult, it’s Great Expectations,” and I’m willing to take him at his word. I’ll be happy to spend some time with Pip and Miss Havisham again in the near future. I might even embark on chunkster like Moby Dick, which gets Murnighan’s vote for “single greatest novel ever” or Ulysses, which he says we should read for three reasons: “We can’t be as smart as Joyce, we can’t notice as much as Joyce, and we can’t be as funny as Joyce.”

And you can bet your bottom dollar that I won’t pass up an opportunity to return to One Hundred Years of Solitude, which Murnighan calls “the novel that arches above and beyond all others, covering them in its eclipse like a sequoia does a sapling” because of “the humanity it incarnates, the wisdom, love, humor, imagination, joy, and sex that it contains, its ability to strum you like a zither and make your heart sing out beautiful.”

Murnighan has a lot to say about One Hundred Years of Solitude, but if this doesn’t make you want to run out and buy the first copy you can find, I don’t know what will.

I’m convinced there’s no book that can teach us more. It doesn’t merely tell, nor at times even show, it embodies, instantiating not only all the glory that’s in there, but making us realize the staggering fact hat a human being could write such a work, could make something with that much feeling, something so full of everything that makes our lives fuller. To know that such a man was out there and that he could give us such a work restores hope to even the most jaded among us.

Wow oh wow oh wow.  If it’s possible to have a literary crush on someone, I have one on Jack Murnighan, and I’m ready to make this the bookish summer of love. Seriously.

You know there’s at least one classic you want to read and have been making excuses about. Go buy it. And Beowulf on the Beach. And read them together. Why?  Because Jack Murnighan makes the classics seem not just accessible but inviting, exciting, and unmissable.

Go on. You know you wanna.

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December 10, 2010
Wow oh wow oh wow- what a review! This sounds right up my alley because like you I've often come across the classics in post-collegiate life and felt an obligation to give them a decent try but, I've been stumped on where to start. This has just jumped to the top of my TBR list! Thanks so much for sharing- did you check out @Fionnabhair's and @Jerry_Saperstein's review of this book?
More Beowulf on the Beach: What to ... reviews
review by . October 06, 2009
"Beowulf on the Beach" is actually too flawed to truly merit five-stars, but it has redeeming factors that bring up its score.    Any book that encourages people to read for pleasure and makes such reading more accessible is a worthy contribution. "Beowulf on the Beach" has the added attraction of being well written in a light style that is not devoid of substance, although it pretentiously tries to be "funny". I think author Murnighan's devices of calling out certain points …
About the reviewer
Rebecca Joines Schinsky ()
Ranked #328
Panty-throwing, book-loving wild woman behind The Book Lady's Blog. Reader, critic, lover of indie bookstores, National Book Critics Circle member.
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“Jack Murnighan’s enthusiasm for the great books–and his understanding of why they still matter–is genuinely infectious. ReadingBeowulf on the Beachis like belonging to the most stimulating and hilarious book club you could possibly imagine.”
—Steven Johnson, author ofEverything Bad Is Good For You

“Odysseus was a hero in his own way. But to me, a true hero? Jack Murnighan. He's ingested these 50 massive books and given us a ridiculously entertaining guide.Beowulf on the Beachis funny, smart, passionate and wise. Just having it on your shelf will raise your IQ.”
—A.J. Jacobs, author ofThe Know-It-All 

"Jack Murnighan unveils a lot more sexiness–and pleasure of all kinds–in classic literature than most people would ever dream of."
—Susie Bright, editor of the Best American Erotica series
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ISBN-10: 0307409570
ISBN-13: 978-0307409577
Author: Jack Murnighan
Publisher: Three Rivers Press

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