Friday, February 12, 2010

Beowulf on the Beach by Jack Murnighan

Jack Murnighan, professor of medieval and renaissance literature at Duke University, is passionate about the classics and is eager to make his readers feel the same.

To appeal to a modern day audience (and to avoid the stereotype that classics are for “squares”) Beowulf on the Beach uses slang and ribald language to entertain his audience. It also includes a “What’s sexy” section in each chapter to entice reluctant readers. Frankly, I skipped over most of those tidbits. The few I read convinced me I was definitely NOT interested in several of the recommended books.

So I was more than a little surprised at his love for some decidedly “Christian” texts. Although clueless about most of the Bible (he says biblical writers wrote the New Testament to counterbalance the evils of the Old), he loves its rich language. His favorite classic of all time is Milton’s Paradise Lost and he is not afraid to gush over it:

Paradise Lost becomes really amazing at the moment you enter into awe. You should feel struck, feel wondrous, be utterly blown away by what Milton’s pulling off. I don’t care if you don’t agree with a single tenet of his philosophy – I barely do – you still have to delight in the fervor, the mind, and the utter mastery of technique behind Paradise Lost. Not only does it have the most ambitious story of any narrative in English, it’s the most methodical line by line. It’s breathtaking. (p. 144)

In spite of his infectious enthusiasm for the classics, he did not convince me to read all of his favorite authors. When he described Virginia Woolf’s writings as “controlled stylistic epilepsy”, I was less interested than ever. Nevertheless, I intend to read at least a dozen of his other recommendations.

A few of his choice comments:

On George Eliot: There are smart novels, there are smarter novels, and then there’s Middlemarch. (p. 246)

On Hemingway: It might be that no writer since the author of Genesis has been so terse and yet so powerful. He is the undisputed master of the simple sentence. (p. 304)

On Moby Dick: Yes, the humor might be trapped in five hundred pages of what can seem like the Encyclopedia Britannica of whaling, but trust me, it’s there. It was meant to be there, and once you get Melville’s sense of humor, Moby Dick becomes the classic it really is, and the best novel ever written by an American. (p. 196)


Beth said...

I have to agree about George Eliot. I absolutely loved Middlemarch.

Carol in Oregon said...

Ditto Beth on Middlemarch. I really enjoy George Eliot, but my sister read some titles at my recommendation and hated it. So there it is.