The author presents this book to his readers as a sort of "cheat's guide" - a witty scamper through the books we haven't read and never will, with intermittent asides to his audience about how to bluff your way through a literary conversation. There are tactics for stopping a Jane Austen fan in their tracks, and the odd quote or epigram to pinch. However, the limited amount of thin humour fails to sufficiently season the author's main aim, just as so many modern foods now have so little salt in them they are unappetising.
For Hitching's real aim, it seems, is not to enable the willfully illiterate to pass as cultured, but to lure the reluctant into reading classics they might otherwise have dismissed out of hand. While ostensibly giving you a resume and brief analysis so you may pass yourself off as having read it, it's pretty clear he would dearly love you to think "Ooh, that sounds much less boring than I anticipated, I'll give it a go!", and to this end he gets led astray down some fairly "lit crit" byways. This isn't at all the jolly skive the buyer has been promised. I am sure if Hitchings had titled the book "A brief guide to the classics of world literature", he would have sold many, many fewer copies.
Some readers, I'm sure, will be seriously keen to get a lightly written "crib" version of these books, plus a few clever remarks to wave at chance acquaintances, and various literary digressions. They might find it rather heavy going, though, if they're expecting a shortcut. Others may welcome this relatively painless opportunity to examine some books they have thought of reading but remain unsure about - Tolstoy, for instance. As such, it does a reasonably good job of work. However, Hitchings himself doesn't seem sure who his audience is. If, as he says, it is those who enjoy light reading, would like to appear better-read, but baulk at the difficulty or tedium of the classics, his style is poorly crafted. He writes "Not many people READ Shakespeare's plays - that's reckoned dull fare, the stuff of the classroom - and of his other works only the sonnets are much perused." PERUSED????? Personally, I find this pretty dull fare and smelling strongly of the classroom. What's wrong with "Few people read the plays; that would feel too much like doing your homework. Shakespeare also wrote poems, but of these, people only read the sonnets."? Hitching's schoolmasterish language only reinforces the bookish, academic feel he is allegedly trying to disperse.
As a bookish kind of person, I found it intriguing if flawed. But I am not at all the sort of person this book aims itself at. Conclusion; A fairly interesting book but one which really doesn't "Do what it says on the tin".