Thursday Links, 5/13/21

Maybe it’s just that it’s been a few days since I did one of these, but it seems like there’s a lot of material…

  1. An argument for deleting your Goodreads account.
  2. Sylvana Tomaselli, a tutor at St. John’s, discusses Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman on the National Review podcast.
  3. 10 Books You Pretend To Have Read (And Why You Should Really Read Them)
  4. “There is a sordid history of white supremacists denigrating Black people for supposedly being incapable of learning Greek and Latin. The presence of the Classics Department at one of the nation’s leading HBCUs has offered powerful evidence that disproves this pernicious, racist lie.”
  5. New (to me) — seven books that Peter Thiel recommends. Speaking of, there is apparently a new book on Thiel coming out in September.
  6. Haven’t had a chance to listen, but Agnes Callard was on EconTalk!
  7. The Rise And Fall Of Online Culture Wars.
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Similarities and Differences between The Iliad and Beowulf

We spent a bit of time in a recent discussion series noting the similarities and differences between Beowulf, the character, and Hector and Achilles, the central characters of The Iliad.


  • Both present a worldview where warriors are valorized. Both present a society where war is.. if not considered moral, then certainly acceptable. Both present a story which boils down into “let’s look at this one individual operating as part of a larger milieu.”
  • Both Achilles and Beowulf aren’t fighting simple one-to-one fights, but rather large, epoch-defining battles.
  • Anyone else struck by how both Achilles and Beowulf take a body-part of their vanquished enemy?


  • Achilles and Hector have rich inner lives (thinking specifically about Iliad books 6 and 9 here).
  • The gods are distant in Beowulf and anything but in The Iliad.
  • The Iliad presents conflict between men, while Beowulf is man-versus-monster.
  • Hector is valorized because he’s defending his city, while Beowulf seems to be mostly concerned with making a name for himself. (In his defense, there’s evidence that he’s also focussed on his people. From the Heaney translation, beginning line 2794, emphasis mine. “To the everlasting Lord of All, to the King of Glory, I give thanks that I behold this treasure here in front of me, that I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die.” Thanks to the Interintellect member who pushed me to expand my lens on this point.)

Readers may be interested in this review of Maria Dahvana Headley’s version of Beowulf.

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Monday Links, 5/10/21

I’ll write a longer thing on Beowulf shortly, but over the weekend I read Toni Morrison’s excellent essay “Grendel and His Mother,” which helped me understand the story more.

  1. Are star ratings worthwhile?
  2. Rebecca Futo Kennedy, a professor of ancient Greek and Roman studies at Denison University, on the what, who, and why of the Classics: “Critical Classics is about not promoting antiquity as idealized models to underpin modern American exceptionalism, but instead, encourages us to look to the broader realities of that past (warts and all) and to the various ways that past has been used and has influenced our present–not because we are the “natural” heirs of ancient Greece and Rome, but because we chose to build some of our political and social (and scientific) assumptions and practices upon parts of antiquity we liked.”
  3. New (to me) genre — “philosophical fiction,” and 20 recommended works.
  4. Some notes on Thomas Foster’s “How to Read Novels like a Professor.”
  5. “My not very deep or insightful review of Dune.”
  6. Interview with Molly Swetnam-Burland, a professor and recipient of the 2020 Award for Excellence in Teaching of the Classics at the College Level by the Society for Classical Studies:

[W]e can ask questions about the ancient world inspired by our own modern experiences and have rich enough evidence to get some answers. […] When we adopt an approach like this, it reminds us that Romans and Greeks were real people — and I think it also helps us understand what they wrote, whether epic poems or funny satires, because we see that these texts were written by people who were dealing with issues of their own – from food scarcity to plagues to civil wars.

They might escape from reality by reading and reciting Virgil (there’s a lot of evidence that Pompeians knew their Virgil!) in the same way I might re-read a favorite novel over and over, just because it provides me motivation, relaxation and enjoyment. For the record, my favorite novel is Richard Adams’ “Watership Down.”

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Thursday Links, 5/6/21

  1. Jeremy Tate on the classics for National Review.
  2. Ross Douthat: “Where have all the great thinkers gone?”
  3. Also, “Where have all the Great Works gone?”
  4. Top 10 creepiest gothic novels, if that’s your cup of tea…
  5. The movement to save the classics department at Howard now has a website!
  6. New (to me) book: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.
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Monday Links, 5/3/21

  1. Another argument added to the debate of “What Are the Classics For?
  2. Dr. Anika Prather, a Classics professor at Howard University, is talking about fundraising to save the Howard Classics department. There’s talk of a website being set up, which I’ll share.
  3. On the problems of reading classic literature today.
  4. Things I Learned After a Brief Foray into BookTok. (For the uninitiated: “Book” + “TikTok.”) A followup to “How Crying on TikTok Sells Books” in the NYT.
  5. Napoleon: the ultimate bookworm.
  6. New grant: “The GFU program will employ a format based on text, writing and discussion focused on the essential aspects of freedom and citizenship. It will feature a number of Spanish-language authors in a great books curriculum and students will be expected to engage in question-driven seminars tackling big life questions[.]”

And, for something a bit different, I loved this Wall St. Journal article on chess masters obsessing over the chairs they use.

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Questions on The Canterbury Tales

  1. How do we pin down how Chaucer really feels about things? Can we do so?
  2. Where are the tensions in the stories, or among the characters?
  3. What do we make of one of the central tales, the Wife of Bath’s? Is Chaucer forward-thinking?

Having spent some time discussing the stories, what now jumps out at me is the contrast between how people are “supposed” to behave and how they actually do. This happens on the textual level (the Miller’s tale immediately following the Knight’s chivalrous tale, or the fact that they’re telling these bawdy stories on a literal pilgrimage) but also on a personal level: the pardoner being a swindler, the Friar losing his temper, and so on. There’s an extent to which the characters of The Canterbury Tales are smaller-than-life. Is it a cynicism?

The book feels particularly modern in a way that a lot of the other books I’ve read for this project have not. You can easily imagine the petty squabbles and the oneupmanship happening in a bar someplace. To the extent that The Canterbury Tales has cemented its place as one of “the Great Books,” it’s worth asking: what accounts for its enduring popularity?

My initial thought is that it provides a sort of relief to the epic tales by Homer. It feels quotidian and relatable in a way that The Iliad doesn’t. A lot about the characters feels familiar: what are we doing, but trying to close the gap between how we ought to behave versus what we actually do.

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Wednesday Links, 4/28/21

  1. Summary and analysis of Agamemnon.
  2. “Like Prose’s essay on the Comey hearing for NYRBThe Vixen makes an implicit argument for good writing, and even good editing, as a form of political defiance.”
  3. David Goodman has a good quote in response to the news about the Howard University classics department.
  4. Speaking of Howard, here is Dr. Anika Prather: “Howard University’s classics department is an incubator for Black equality. Don’t close it.”
  5. And, last thing on Howard, a counterpoint to the Washington Post op-ed: “Testing the West at Howard University: Thoughts on a Very Strange Op-Ed.”
  6. Is The Canterbury Tales the first place in literatures, chronologically, we encounter undeniably bawdy stories that have made it to us today in such acclaim? Please feel free to jump into this discussion on Twitter.
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Bawdiness in The Canterbury Tales

I knew absolutely nothing about The Canterbury Tales before it was on my great books list and before I read it in the last two weeks. David and I decided to add it to “Reading The Greats” discussion series, and I’m sure I’ll have smarter things to write about it after Sunday’s session with the first group.

What’s this about?

The basic premise is that a group of people — high-born and low — come together as pilgrims on the way to Canterbury and tell stories to pass the time. These stories invariably shine light on the participants, either directly or via satire.


I know next to nothing about medieval culture and so can’t comment intelligently on, say, corruption in the church (this was around the time of Martin Luther and the abuse of indulgences — I do know that much), but what stood out to me was the sheer bawdiness of the tales. My mental model of the Middle Ages did not include the sort of lowest-common-denominator-fart-joke humor that The Canterbury Tales trades in. To be clear, I’m not a Puritan, just surprised! I just mean that if you had told me a year ago that “cuckolding is a major theme in many of the stories that make up The Canterbury Tales,” I’m not convinced I would’ve believed you.

All that said, the Wife of Bath’s tale, which seems to be the one that most people know, spends most of its time trying to answer the question of “What do women want?” It’s dressed up in a chivalrous knight’s tale and the trope of the old crone, but it’s a good example of how, beneath it all, I think Chaucer’s trying to do a social commentary. This is an ongoing question, I think, in the great books — you think they say one thing when they’re actually saying another.

Modern Tales

Reading on background, I learned that the BBC created a “modernized version” back in 2003 that I’m eager to check out. One of the questions that prompts a lot of discussion in “Reading the Greats” is around modern-day equivalents: who is most like Socrates in the 21st century? How do the events of Antigone reflect on contemporary society? Trying to recast these tales in the modern era could be a fun exercise: where there were indulgences, there are now…

(One of the pilgrims should definitely be a TikTok star, too.)

Thanks for reading a stream of consciousness on The Canterbury Tales. As always, feel free to comment below.

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Sunday Links, 4/25/21

I’m delighted to say that I’ve found at least one other person who cultivates these sorts of literary-minded links. Notes in the Margin is an excellent blog that has a “Literary Links” section.

  1. “Bartsch’s spirited, readable translation is a […] a labor of love by a scholar-poet who has examined every nuance, matched each line of English translation to the Latin lines, and attended to problematic lines that continue to stump scholars.”
  2. Following on from the Washington Post’s op-ed in favor of keeping the Classics at Howard, here are some letters to the editor.
  3. Biblical justice versus social justice.
  4. New (to me): a column from Paris Review: “Feminize your canon.”
  5. On not rushing through books: “That’s when I realized this is what I was doing with my reading: rushing through books as fast as I could to get to the next one on my can’t-wait-to-read-it TBR, and also trying to break the previous year’s number of how many books I had read.”
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Friday Links, 4/23/21

  1. Dr. Shadi Bartsch has a predictably excellent conversation with Tyler. Her translation of The Aeneid is fantastic, but her commentary on Virgil, the era in which he was writing, and the choices he makes in the text are even better.
  2. Profile of Edward Said.
  3. “There’s a certain kind of humor and self-effacement that studying the classics cultivates,” said Professor Noe. “You take your discipline seriously. It’s a trust of information and tradition thousands of years old, but you don’t take yourself seriously because you say that ultimately, you’re not that important.”
  4. I will often mix up Angela Duckworth (who wrote Grit) and Tammy Duckworth (the U.S. politician), but here is Tammy Duckworth on By The Book.
  5. What Nick Hornby has been reading.
  6. Is Shakespeare still relevant today? “In his plays where the women cross dress and homoerotic relationships are hinted at, but the women ultimately reveal their identities as women, is Shakespeare endorsing same-sex love or not? In plays where kings are said to be the anointed ones of God, but are shown to be wicked, is Shakespeare endorsing monarchy or not?”
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