Sunday, October 05, 2014
back to the source
After weeks of having nothing, not a single book, lingering on my bedside table (the waiting stacks in the book room notwithstanding), I'm feeling more like my old self, and have finally started a few books I'm excited about reading. Yesterday I visited a favorite local independent bookstore and came across this:
A Book of Voyages edited by Patrick O'Brian (Norton 2013). New to me, though the publication date in this country was last year, and the copyright page says 1947. All to the good, this eccentric anthology of obscure travel narratives, mostly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with sections entitled Pleasant Travels by Land, Unpleasant Voyages, Oriental Splendour, Inefficient Pirates, and other miscellaneous subjects. The jacket copy hints that some of these real-life tales may have been primary sources for O'Brian's fiction. I've just started to read his brief introductions to each section, and realized quickly how much I've missed his voice, so to speak. Maybe this will be the winter I read the Aubrey-Maturin novels yet again, it's been far too long.
My other winter reading project is taking shape. After delighting in the immediacy and relevance of Boethius, and examining my scant collection of other authors of classical antiquity, I've decided to give it a go and read some Greek and Latin literature over the coming months. In translation of course, since, although I did take Latin in high school, I retained precisely none of it. To start with I am returning to an old favorite, a great browsing book, one I am now reading from cover to cover. I've mentioned it here before, many years ago. The wonderful Ancilla to Classical Reading by Moses Hadas (Columbia University Press 1954). Which begins at the beginning, thusly (p.3):
"The simplest explanation for the survival of the classics is that ordinary readers have found them worth preserving. Their vogue has naturally fluctuated with vicissitudes of history and vagaries of taste, but periodic renascences have returned to them with renewed zeal and fresh advocacy."
Regarding the ancients, Hadas continues (p.5):
"Aside from professional and traditional judgments, can vulgar opinion and gossip throw light upon our authors and help bring them to life?"
Gosh, I hope so! I'm over a hundred pages in, and so far we've discussed the origins of Greek literature, why books were declaimed and then written, and distributed, with some fascinating glimpses of the development of reading as a pastime, and collecting, libraries, and the book trade, in Greece, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Drama, poetry, prose, literary criticism, censorship - and this is all just in part one of the book, entitled Production, Reception and Preservation. I am about to begin part two, Literary Gossip, which covers, chronologically, all the Big Names of antiquity, with copious quotations from their works. Hadas says early on, again in the spirit of primary sources, "I myself have always believed that text is more useful than commentary, and so have cited ancient authors freely." (p. vii) Can't wait.
Immediately to follow, waiting on the bedside table (remember the bedside table?), is the gorgeous, massive hardcover Latin Literature: A History by Gian Biagio Conte, translated by Joseph B. Solodow (Johns Hopkins University Press 1994). I see from my secret code inside the back cover of the book that I bought this in 2006 for ten bucks. I've thought about selling it, since even the softcover is a pricey item these days, but it's just so comprehensively beautiful that I've always kept it, throughout all the moves and culls of past years. And I find that the first sentence of the foreword, by Elaine Fantham, puts all doubt to rest (p.xxiii):
"The book you are holding in your hand is an extraordinary achievement. If you care at all about Rome and its literature, pagan and Christian, this book will soon become your friend, and before long you will wonder how you ever managed without it."
Keep this book, KEEP it! It practically shouts at me to do just that. Would that I had done so with all the Loeb Classical Library editions that have passed through my hands over the years. I think the only Loebs I currently own are a few volumes of Virgil, won by my grandfather as a Latin prize at his prep school. I do have a shelf of other classics, mostly poetry, to slowly work my way through. Between those, and whatever else I can turn up locally, and the Patrick O'Brian novels waiting patiently in the wings, I should be occupied for the foreseeable future. This must sound absolutely insufferable - All she does is read! - which is so, so not the case. Trust me on that.