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The 5-Minute Iliad and Other Instant Classics

Great Books for the Short Attention Span

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5-Minute Iliad

5-Minute Iliad

Simon & Schuster
At first glance, you're sure to see that the book is a parody of all that we hold dear in literature. On the cover, Garrison Keillor says: "Funny and well-done... America wants comedy that is both gentle and weird, and these are qualities Mr. Nagan possesses."
It may be that all of those years I spent listening to Garrison Keiller as a kid has clouded my judgement... Minnesota Public Radio, "Prairie Home Companion," and all of those stories from Lake Wobegon. Of course, "The Five-minute Iliad" was originally broadcast on "Prairie Home Companion." I suppose it's possible I might have even heard bits and pieces of the work before. Not likely...

But, then, just by looking at the book, you can guess the book will be unforgettably funny. Just thumbing through the pages, you'll notice how much Nagan has been able to stuff into the small volume: a 5-minute history to start us off, then Homer's "Iliad," Dante's "Divine Comedy," Milton's "Paradise Lost," Austen's "Sense and Sensibility," Dicken's "Christmas Carol," Melville's "Moby-Dick," Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," Wilde's "Picture of Dorian Gray," Stoker's "Dracula," Kafka's "Metamorphosis," Joyce's "Ulysses," Orwell's "1984," Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea," and rounding the classics up with Kerouac's "On the Road."

Browsing Through the Classics

So, he manages to jam 15 great classics into 224 pages (of course, those pages also include the acknowledgments, blank pages, graphical elements, etc.). And, he presents the stories with a modern flare. You can almost forget that you're reading about stories that you know quite well. They have changed before your very eyes... you'll see.

In the "Iliad," you'll finally come to understand that "it took Ulysses twenty years to sail home to Ithaca / because he was a proud man and would not ask for directions... / So it was pretty much a bummer / all the way around."

Skipping on ahead (or back to the beginning of time), the downfall of mankind and the traditional subjugation of woman to man is nicely condensed into: "Then Adam and Even turned back and looked, / Looked one long last teary-eyed time, / At the Paradise they'd lost for ever... 'It's all your stupid fault,' saieth Adam. / Replieth Eve: 'Shut up.'"

Then, Scrooge doesn't repent until the next year (the ghosts screwed it all up). And, nestled in between the stories are wonderful discussions of the authors and their times. You'll discover that Oscar Wilde "served his time in a special prision for writers, whose inmates were forced to read bad books." Sentenced for "acts of gross indecency with other mail persons," Nagan writes: "Scholars have debated for decaes what those acts of gross indecency may have been, and although the question may never be answerd to anyone's satisfaction, they appear to be having a grand old time discussing it."

We'd Like to Think About What Might Have Been

And, that's the fun of it, I suppose... discussing literature. We can imagine all of the different ways a story might have ended, the paths a character might have taken (had the plot twists gone just slightly the other way).

The book is well-worth the read, whether you have read these classics or not. Of course, if you have read "Catcher in the Rye," "1984," and all of the other, you may understand some of the more humorous elements of the mis-told and hardly-told tales.

And we end with several lines from the Introduction: "if you don't familiarize yourself with the themes and ideas of the Great Books, you're going to lead a miserable life and die. You'll probably lead a miserable life and die anyway, but an acquaintance with Great Books can help you understand your misery and death in a broader context. That's got to count for something..."

Here's just one way to end (or begin) your reading of the classics.

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