Assorted Links, 5/25/21

  1. New (to me): The bookstore at St. John’s College has a category for faculty-written books.
  2. Nonfiction you may have missed because #GlobalPandemic.
  3. Muhua Yang ’21 says [Ovid’s] work resonates in an era of global displacement — and COVID.” (I think the same of The Odyssey — only gaining in relevance.)
  4. Interview with Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian and whose new book, Project Hail Mary, is out now.
  5. Thoughts on Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!
  6. WSJ on the Mike Pence/Simon & Schuster brouhaha.
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(Hopefully) Less inchoate thoughts on Dante’s Inferno

“There Minos stands.” Gustave Doré.

Continued from here.

Intellectuals say that Paradiso is for pious theologians, Purgatorio is for brilliant, exacting scholars of Medieval cosmology, but Inferno, Inferno is for filthy casuals.
Books in 150 Words.

I finished Inferno over the weekend, and there’s something about the book that comes together at the end. I don’t just mean that the plot comes full circle — he goes into Hell, he comes out — but the symbolism of the descent into Hell helps you understand and contextualize the book better than just reading selections.

I also have a couple of reference books that are following me through this project: Charles Van Doren’s “The Joy of Reading,” Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major’s “The New Lifetime Reading Plan,” and Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon.” All of these shed light on just why Inferno is so unusual.

Part of it is that, for a book ostensibly about good and evil, it’s sort of… all about Dante. He’s very sure of himself, both in the religious sense (the schismatics) but also in the sense that he is undeniably the central character. More than Virgil, more than anyone he meets, more than Satan, this is a book about what Dante does, thinks, and cares about. (I love how everyone he meets gets asked specifically if there are any Italians/Florentines in their circle of Hell: Inferno is at once cosmic and parochial.)

There’s never a hint of doubt that Dante is your tour guide through Hell, and what he’s seeing is The Truth, in caps: he goes to great lengths to contextualize what he’s seeing, not just witness it.

In all, Inferno is an enjoyable read both because it contains so many references one would recognize in the 21st century (the Seven Deadly Sins, the circles of Hell, “abandon all hope, ye who enter here”) and because it’s a rewarding tale. It’s not — as I thought before I started it — a book about Hell: it’s a book about this world. Dante explicitly wants us to think and to act in certain ways, and Inferno is one big allegory, a vehicle for that desire.

One question I get every so often is how much of a given Classic I’m “getting.” The suggestion, I think, is that these books are only comprehendible to scholars and academics, and the question of whether it’s worthwhile even trying to understand a book if you’re not going to get everything out it. Here’s Fadiman again:

“Most editions contain notes explaining the major references. A good way of trying Dante is to read a canto without paying attention to the notes. Then, reread it, using the notes. Do not expect to understand everything — eminent scholars are still quarreling over Dante’s meaning. You will understand enough to make your reading worth the effort.”

I agree with Fadiman in that my goal isn’t to understand 100% of Dante — I understood very few of the references he makes, and certainly I was unfamiliar with essentially all of Dante’s contemporaries. I think it’s a mistake to worry too much about not understanding the Great Books: they’re enduring in part because they’re excellent stories that have been copied and referenced time and again. When you let go of perfect understanding as an aim, you enjoy the stories themselves much more.

P.S. Everyone who’s anyone says you have to read the entire Comedy and not just Inferno, and I will! Just not right now — next up for the discussion series is Machiavelli’s The Prince. Translation/edition recs welcome!

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Friday Links, 5/21/21

I’ve been reading and enjoying Not All Dead White Men, Donna Zuckerberg’s book on misogyny in the Classics.

“[N]obody denies that our society owes a debt to the Greeks. The question is how that debt should be treated. Should we romanticize that debt, as Shelley did, and as one can find men on Red Pill websites doing today? Or is it more of a complicated and problematic legacy?”

  1. On war, War and Peace, and rereading books.
  2. Anika Prather on the role of the Classics in understanding Black history.
  3.  “As a librarian and a writer I am here to tell you that it’s OK to stop reading a book you aren’t feeling.”
  4. Summary and Analysis of George Orwell’s ‘My Country Right or Left’.
  5. A novel for life after the pandemic.
  6. A writer’s fellowship for unpublished, underrepresented women. “LitUp will provide five emerging writers with an all-expenses-paid retreat, a three-month mentorship with a published author, and marketing support from Reese’s Book Club.” Apply by May 30.
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Inchoate thoughts on Dante’s Inferno

“Will you – should either head back to the world – bring comfort to my memory, which lies still lashed beneath the stroke of envious eyes?”
Inferno, Canto 13.76-78.

I’m about a third of the way through Inferno, just finished Canto 13, where they talk to the man turned into a tree.

I keep a post-it on the inside cover of the book, keeping track of recurring themes in whatever I’m reading. For a book that’s ostensibly about Hell, Dante is very concerned with both his own fame and the fame of the people he meets. (As a sidebar, I’m tickled that he meets both famous creatures from mythology and what seem to be random Florentines.)

The idea goes that, consigned to Hell as these people are, they have a modicum of fame back on Earth by virtue of getting a speaking role in Inferno. This fits, in that the people in the lesser (uh, higher) circles of Hell are un-named, as a way of consigning them to oblivion. You also see this when people refuse to tell Dante his name, or the names of other people in Hell: “You can have an everlasting reputation, but as a sinner in Hell” seems like a Faustian bargain.

Something that’s very much a fledgling thought: Dante is literally writing people into Hell. He’s writing a book on a journey through Hell and anybody he meets there (especially, say, in the circle of Hell for sodomites…) automatically gets their rep tarnished. This becomes a way for Dante to comment on the political scenes of Florence of the day, but I couldn’t help being reminded –of all things– of the characters of the movie Mean Girls and the concept of the burn book.

The constant name-dropping (of both famous figures and the great names of literature; Virgil, Homer, Ovid, etc) also has the impact of elevating Dante, both the character and the author. Look who he’s rubbing shoulders with! Look who literally guides him through the underworld! He also apes at least a couple scenes from The Aeneid (I’m only halfway through), some with more subtlety than others.

An open question (one that I’d like to bring to the next discussion series) is whether Dante looks down on all fame — or, asked another way: what’s the right sort of fame to purse, according to Dante?

 

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Great Books Project, 6 months in

I started reading the Classics around Thanksgiving 2020, and the half-year anniversary of reading the books passed me by. I strike the books off this list and am 10 books in, with Dante’s Inferno coming up as #11.

Some quick thoughts:

  • Best classic so far: Don Quixote and The Odyssey, which might replace Count of Monte Cristo as my go-to “it’s a Die Hard-style rollicking good time, but for books.” Worst: I didn’t get into Metamorphoses but people smarter than me really seem to like it. Elements was hard, but mostly because I did it solo: I’ll hopefully get to see it again during my first semester at St. John’s.
  • As the world starts to open back up, I’m happy that my desire to read these books continues to be high. Put another way, while this project started during shelter-in-place, it’s a hobby I want to continue even as other activities become possible again.
  • I’m also happy that reading the classics didn’t eclipse reading contemporary books, both fiction and non-fiction. My overall books-read list is here and includes a hodgepodge of theology, novels, essays, and contemporary nonfiction. Put another way, I’m reading exactly what I was reading in years prior: reading the greats has complimented rather than supplanted what I used to read before.
  • When I started, I think I believed that reading the greats would be good for career development. I think that might be true in a very indirect sense, in that it trains reading comprehension muscles, and blogging forces me to write often. More than anything, though, I find it enjoyable for its own sake, and while it may expand my career choices or opportunities, that feels like a distinctly tangential benefit.
  • The Jewish conception of a Sabbath (from whence we get the idea of a sabbatical) centers around this idea that we spend six days a week striving: trying to be better, richer, etc. The Sabbath, on the other hand, is a day for leaving the world alone: of being content with things as they are and not trying to exert one’s will on the world, to make it just so. Zena Hitz, author of the excellent Lost in Thought, connects this idea to an intellectual life. Creating and developing an inner life cultivates “a retreat within a human being, a place where real reflection takes place.” This retreat, for Hitz, is a space of aspiration, of being someone, or somewhere, different to today. This experience feels true to me, in that it’s hard to read these books and not challenge some belief you have. Reading these books has kicked off more than one late-night dorm room-style philosophical conversation with a friend. (Although I can’t do late nights any more.)
  • The books themselves are funnier, shorter, and more relevant than I would’ve given them credit for. I think Don Quixote was the longest, at 450 or so pages. The US paperback of The Da Vinci Code was longer.
  • “The Classics” are both a sort-of-but-not-really-agreed-on list of good books and also a leg on a culture war stool. On my desk right now is Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men, her look into how the Alt-Right co-opts the classics.
  • My impression so far: The sort of people you’d expect to jump and defend the classics as a foundation of culture do so, the other side vociferously attack them, and nuance is the first casualty.
  • Blogging is not dead in the book world, and it doesn’t feel like it’s been supplanted by Book Instagram or Book Tiktok.
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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.

Similarities

  • 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?

Differences

  • 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! SaveHUClassics.org.
  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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