College is tough. And I want to help. And so I offer these John Notes on some of the books students are required to read in any "Masterpieces of Western Literature" type class. Kids: Don't thank me. It's enough to know I was here for you when you needed me.
The Odyssey: A hairy guy who yells a lot floats around in a boat.
Oedipus the King: A guy marries a girl a little too much like the girl who married dear old dad. (When this play opened at the Viennese National Theatre in 1901, Freud, in attendance, died of an asthma attack.)
The Apology of Socrates: Socrates feels bad. He didn't mean to do it. Plato made him do it.
Ovid's Metamorphoses: More people than you can shake a stick at get mysteriously transformed into ... well, sticks.
Dante's The Divine Comedy: A guy in a funny hat visits Hell and acts rude. We follow him into the pits of unbearable agony, which lasts right up until the moment we close this book and go see who's hanging out at the college shop.
Don Quixote: A skinny old Spanish guy goes nuts and rides around being hilarious. (This really is the funniest book ever written. A must read. Get the Samuel Putnam translation.)
Goethe's Faust: A guy who over-intellectualizes everything sells his soul for a chance to have sex. A lesson for college students everywhere.
War and Peace: Guys go crazy killing each other. Guys go crazy over women. Peace is elusive.
Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illyich: Someone named Frank Boltosky croaks. Kidding! What really happens is that Ivan Illyich, whom everyone thinks is dead, suddenly leaps from his bed, and declares that from then on he will dedicate his life to aerobic fitness. Three days later he is killed when his overcoat gets caught in a threshing mill. Sad, in a pointless kind of way.
Kafka's The Metamorphosis: A guy turns into a cockroach the size of a sofa, and spends all his time in his room sulking about it. His family has trouble adjusting.
Tomorrow: The basics of Western philosophy.