Picks and Pans Review: An Incomplete Education

updated 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Judy Jones and William Wilson

The success of books like Cultural Literacy and The Closing of the American Mind otters proof that many people are hunting hard for fig leaves to cover their intellectual nakedness. Those who favor a fast-food-for-thought approach to the accumulation of knowledge will find a lot to savor in An Incomplete Education, by two former Esquire researchers. Divided into chapters on American studies, art history, psychology, religion, science, music, philosophy, etc., the book is irreverent ("But, as Miss Piggy, every inch a Rubens gal, might say...") and informative. (It explains the difference between a copse and a glen; a brougham and a curricle; legato and tremolo and the temperaments of Keats and Shelley: "Keats is the one you'd play racquetball with.") It is a compendium that teaches you all the things you didn't learn because, oh, you know, you were absent that day or you weren't paying attention or you were present, paying attention, but forgot the information right after the final exam. An Incomplete Education is sometimes too flip for its own credibility: "Hawthorne is considered something of an underachiever"; "Poe was a poverty-stricken alcoholic who did drugs and who married his thirteen-year-old cousin just like Jerry Lee Lewis did." English lit majors might quibble about the authors' choice of 12 fictional characters "with whom you should have at least a nodding acquaintance" (why Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austen's Emma and not Heathcliff from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights?), and one could argue about certain omissions. For example, there's no mention of Fitzgerald or Faulkner and not a word about the Aeneid or the Restoration. But the book, after all, acknowledges its own incompleteness. It's considerably more fun than Freshman English, Chem 101 and Physics for Poets. Read it faute de mieux (the translation, for those who didn't major in French, can be found on page 636). (Ballantine, $24.95)

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