What to Skip
I want to add my two cents to Jack Murnighan's new book, "Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits." I agree with some his skip recommendations. For example, I consider everything in Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain" after Hans Castorp's dream in the snow to be anti-climactic, and Murnighan seems to stop on roughly the same page.
But when I saw that he'd included Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations," my razorback bristled. I wouldn't cut a line from that masterpiece and would shake a fist at anyone who tried to. On turning to Murnighan's entry on GE, however, I found this: "What to Skip: Nothing at All." Well done, Mr. Murnighan.
On the other hand, I do have a recommendation for Dickens's "Pickwick Papers," which has no entry in Murnighan because it doesn't make it into his top 50: Skip the stories told by the travelers. The main narrative, featuring Mr. Pickwick and his pals and their eventual manservant, Sam Weller, is superb. But Dickens was obliged to produce copy at breakneck speed, and to meet his quota he threw in stories he'd already written or ones he dashed off for the occasion, usually told around a fireplace after supper in one of the inns where the picaresque heroes stop for the evening. These tales vary from passable to weak, and for my money they just get in the way of the comic main act.
My second recommendation concerns "The Octopus," Frank Norris's powerful fictional attack on the Southern Pacific Railroad, one of the most hated monopolies of the 19th century. The main story draws upon an actual, horrendous incident, the Mussel Slough Tragedy, to depict ordinary men -- ranchers in this case -- defeated by large and inexorable forces (the railroad and its deep pockets, which it uses to bribe legislators). This part of the book is especially strong because Norris gave his ranchers flaws (in frustration, they adopt some of the railroad's underhanded ways) and was able to imagine himself into the head of the chief railroad tycoon, who offers an interesting explanation for why he behaves as he does (sounding like a Chicago-school economist, he puts the blame on blind market forces). The result is that rarity, a polemical novel in which the deck is not stacked. But Norris also inserted a quasi-mystical and worthless sub-plot involving a man named Vanamee and his long-lost love. It's not only dreadful; it goes nowhere. Whenever Vanamee appears, just skim along until he exits again, and you have a great -- and somewhat neglected -- American classic to read.
-- Dennis Drabelle
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