Mostly I feel ok about no one reading our blog. I did feel a little bit worse when I read this review of The Wordy Shipmates. In fairness, at times that book was--okay--annoying, but the review was harsher than I felt was really warranted. "With all these middlebrow historians making scholarly work perfectly accessible," Virginia Heffernan writes, "do we really need still more accessibility — pierced-brow history, maybe, with TV and pop-music references?"
Another burn: "Vowell, who constantly emphasizes how nerdy (meaning impressive) she finds her own interest in the Puritans, introduces figures like John Winthrop and Roger Williams as if no one’s ever heard of them."
All right, I'm just going to own this one right here and now: I didn't know who they were before I read The Wordy Shipmates. Admittedly, I dropped out of high school after a year, and got two years of what should've been my high school education at decidedly mediocre Irish schools, so my knowledge of American history is... well... there's not a lot of it--but I'm not the most ignorant person there ever was, and I didn't know the first thing about Winthrop and Williams. It seems unlikely, moreover, that I would've been inspired to pick up a book about them if Fiona hadn't spoken so highly of Sarah Vowell. Just because something has been made accessible doesn't mean it's appealing.
Anyway. I digress. Heffernan's point is that, if you really want to learn about the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vowell is maybe not your best bet. And of course if you really want to learn about Western lit classics, we are not your best bet. Which is fine, since that's not so much the point of the Literary Iditarod. But part of the point of the Iditarod is to make silly comments about great works, which is sort of the Sarah Vowell model. I can see why Heffernan is irritated about that--there's a lot more to say about the Massachussetts Bay Colony (/Homer), and you shouldn't have to have basic history (/literature) fed to you with a spoon. But isn't there room for both highbrow scholarship and lightweight books (/blogs)? I think it can be helpful to have a wide range of viewpoints and contexts; we can't all be David McCullough (/...Clifford Geertz?).
The Iditarod is also largely extraneous to one of its other ostensible raisons d'être: preparing me for the lit GRE. Most of the advice I see about it says buy the Princeton Review guide, maybe buy a Norton anthology or two, and cram. And that's more than reasonable--having seen some sample questions in my study book, well... I need not have skimmed a word of Hawthorne (and I haven't, yet) to be able to name Hester Prynne, and all the epic poetry I can read will never tell me that it was Maya Angelou who worked as a streetcar conductor and also as a prostitute (nor will it tell you that my mom used to date her son, Guy Johnson; I hope that's on the test).
I feel like I should do the reading, though, or at least as much of it as I can. And I enjoy it. So maybe there's no real reason for you to read our blog or for us to write it (especially Fiona--she doesn't even want to go to grad school!).
But if you are reading our blog and you have read Homer, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the Odyssey versus the Iliad. I'm finding the Odyssey so much more readable, to the point where I've flipped ahead a few times at tense points to see when things will be resolved. It's gripping! I want to know how things go down!* I'm sure some of that has to do with Lattimore vs. Fagles, but is some just a difference in the books themselves? David says that "a lot more happens in the Odyssey," but he's only read the condensed version, too, so I'm not sure I can trust his opinion. Is the Odyssey intrinsically more interesting? Is Fagles just way, way easier (I mean, he definitely is)? Knox writes,
One ancient critic, the author of the treatise On the Sublime, thought that the Odyssey was the product of Homer's old age, of "a mind in decline; it was a work that could be compared to the setting sun--the size remained, without the force." ...What prompted his comment "without the force" is clearly his preference for the sustained heroic level of the Iliad over what he terms the Odyssey's presentation of "the fabulous and incredible" as well as the realistic description of life in the farms and palace of Odysseus' domain, which, he says, "forms a kind of comedy of manners." (23)Maybe I just like the comedy of manners stuff... the Iliad's gory battle scenes got a little repetitive for me. (Although when it comes to gore, the Odyssey maybe tops its predecessor; I was going to quote from the scene where Odysseus gouges out Polyphemus' eye, but then I realized that I don't even want to read it again, let alone commit it to print. Eye-gouging is always bad, no matter whose they are... Oedipus', Gloucester's, Polyphemus'... it's always gross and I always feel sick. Why you gotta gouge out so many eyes, Great Authors?) One of the things that keeps the Odyssey interesting is the huge variety of settings, characters, and events.
So did you like the Iliad better or the Odyssey? Why? And which are your favorite translations?
I wanted to make a more Odyssey-centric post, but I guess I got sidetracked. So further Odyssey to come.
*Even though Homer basically tells you everything at the outset:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turnsGeez, Homer, way to give away like the entire plot. It's cool. I didn't want any suspense anyway. But really, not even a "spoiler alert" or anything?
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove--
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return. [...]
But one man alone...
his heart set on his wife and his return--
Calypso, the bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess, held him back,
deep in her arching caverns, craving him for a husband.
But then, when the wheeling seasons brought the year around,
that year spun out by the gods when he should reach his home,
Ithaca--though not even there would he be free of trials,
even among his loved ones--then every god took pity,
all except Poseidon. He raged on, seething against
the great Odysseus till he reached his native land. (ll. 1.1-10, 15-24)