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Book Bytes: Investigating Jack Murnighan's Beowulf on the Beach

Rachel Balik

Rachel Balik on the fate of books in a digital age. What gets written and published? Why? What are we really reading?

Beowulf on the Beach
by Jack Murnighan
May 2009, 374 pages, $15.00

That's my hundred-character introduction to what I hope will be a regular installation on Re:Print looking at the way books are changing in form and content. If art reflects zeitgeist what do we do when the zeitgeist seems totally unartistic and computerized? This question as it pertains to books is particularly pressing because the going attitude seems to be that we're incapable making it through a thousand-word magazine article.

If that's really true, who is going to read Middlemarch? Well, possibly you, says Jack Murnighan in his recently released Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits. Murnighan offers a reading guide to what he, a writing professor and doctor of English literature, believes to be the 50 greatest pieces of literature in the Western canon. He starts with the ancient Greeks and works his way to Toni Morrison. The concept calls to mind the description of a shelf filled with books so ubiquitous in our culture that we can pretend we've read them in Italio Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler.

Of course, this book will help the reader keep pretending. Each section begins with the buzz, a few pages that describe and summarizes the book, its greatest assets and pitfalls. Then he provides his opinions on “best line”, “what's sexy”, and “what to skip”. In short, these aren't your average Cliff's notes. From example, he introduces Henry James by calling him the most constipated writer in history. Emily Bronte, on the other hand, is a "bushfire waiting to blaze". And by the way, don't feel bad about skipping the first few acts of , they're kind of irrelevant. And the first ten chapters of Jane Eyre are skimmable.

One thing is clear from his writing style and content: his book is written for modern consumption. It's funny, you don't have to read it in order and you can walk away from it feeling and sounding smarter based on a minimal time investment. And it’s also a way for the writer to flex creative muscles. Murnighan is personable, crafty, and genuine. But I did wonder what his true intentions for the book were. In an email interview with the author, I was able to conclude that Murnighan genuinely believes there is an important task at hand. At the same time, in keeping with our intensely autonomous culture, it is the readers who ultimately determine the book’s value and meaning.

PM: Who is it written for?

JM: Mostly it’s written for anyone who still has a lingering interest in reading some highbrow lit -- or feels guilty for not doing so. It’s actually a larger percentage of the population than you might think.

PM: Did you really intend for it to be reading guide, or does it (can it) stand alone?

JM: Both. I wanted to make sure you enjoyed reading each of my chapters, but I also really wanted it to be useful. What I didn’t want was to read like Harold Bloom: stuffy, and not particularly helpful for non-academics.

PM: You don't seem to think the book is a substitute for reading the classics, but isn't there a chance that your readers will?

JM: That’s okay, though of course Melville and Toni Morrison are much better writers than I am. But at least I’ll give you some of their great lines that you might otherwise never know.

PM: [In terms of the] section "what to skip?" There are people who argue that some of the experiences the brain has while reading are dependent on continuity. Your thoughts? Is this section just meant to be funny?

JM: No, I take it very seriously. It’s unrealistic to think that people will be able to read a lot of these works, so I tried extremely hard to isolate the parts that really are expendable. I don’t believe in condensing books, just in leaving out the weak and unnecessary stuff.

PM: How do you see this book fitting in with the zeitgeist -- i.e. The whole world compressed in 140 characters. Why/when did you decide to write it?

JM: In 138 characters: Bloom wrote a book How to Read and Why that to me simply wasn’t good enough. This is my How to Read the Classics and Why. People need it.

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