It hurts to take issue with someone who is trying to get Americans to read better books. But an exception must be made for Jack Murnighan, author of Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits, who has a truly irksome interview in USA Today.
Murnighan argues that if you are going to spend most of your time on the beach staring at “people in bikinis and wet bathing suits” anyway, the three pages you actually do manage to read might as well be Dickens instead of Nora Roberts. Ready to take the literature plunge? For men, he recommends Beowolf, because it's short and has “a lot of violence and battle scenes.” For the ladies? There is Wuthering Heights, because it has “all this drama and all this intensity.” One Hundred Years of Solitude is “sexy,” and Moby-Dick is “lighthearted, playful and goofy,”—lighthearted, really?—and Ishmael “is just a complete cut-up having a great time.”
Sure, literature classics should be enjoyed, not revered (or approached like “eating your oatmeal” as Murnighan put it on NPR) because, well, they are truly enjoyable to read. But his argument about these books does them a disservice: Murnighan severs sex and violence from worthiness. The point isn’t that worthy books happen to have the sex and violence and humor that modern audiences crave, as if Beowolf is the novel version of Coke Plus (the soda with vitamins too!) The point is that sex and violence and humor are themselves complicated, and classics explore and explain them as such.
Finally, Murnighan seems a bit too consumed with bragging rights. He thinks the worst beach book is Remembrance of Things Past, but he happens to have read “all 3,300 pages” on the beach—twice. And which accessory of Murnighan's does he want you to notice this summer if you see him on the beach? His “mega-hard gigantic”—no—copy of The Recognitions by William Gaddis.