“I want you to feel these books in your heart, in your soul, and maybe below the waist,” Jack Murnighan writes in Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits. Lolita aside, we think it’s great advice.
Murnighan — who has a Ph.D. in medieval and Renaissance literature but writes mostly about sex — starts in antiquity, works his way through Dante and Milton, and ends with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Each book gets a couple of pages; each page dispenses enough facts to help you work your way through a cocktail party or two. (Pushkin was a foot fetishist; Proust is responsible for the first high-literary representation of “gaydar”). Many of Murnighan’s conclusions are off-base (see, for instance, his chapter on Balzac’s Père Goriot). But as with the collected writings of Pauline Kael, disagreeing with the critic can be more fun than turning to the work itself.
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