Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

I have been reading a terrifying book lately, called ‘The Shallows’, about how the Internet is changing the format of our brains and how we process information. The book reasons that the Internet sprays us with little bits of information which we browse lightly, rather than committing to the sort of “deep reading’ that allows us to follow an argument, that is, the kind of brain we have had since reading and writing were invented.

This book follows swift on the heels of an article I read in The Guardian recently about how e-readers allow a huge number of multimedia features to be incorporated into a book. For example, the e-reader version of ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel includes a discussion between the author and Dr. David Starkey, as well as useful illustrative links and so on. However, ‘The Shallows’ argues that these little gems detract from our focus as we read. I know I’d be on edge if I was looking for Easter eggs and hyperlinks as well as following a complex story line.

I was skeptical about e-readers, I’ll admit it. I thought they’d die the death of the 8-Track and Betamax, truth be told. I can see their advantage if you go travelling and don’t want to bring an entire library with you, but their appeal ended there, for me. I love the heft of a book in my hand, the ability to fold down page corners, the fact that I can (and do) drop it in the bath without worrying about the loss of my entire library. Reading this book, however, has persuaded me never to use an e-reader. The human brain, with its ability to focus deeply on a task (especially when that task is a book), is a triumph of evolution/design/both. Anything that distances my brain from the brain of the ancients is, in my opinion, a bad thing. 

Originally, literary works were written on scrolls, which were a bit cumbersome and hard to use. Wax tablets were used for day-to-day writing, since parchment was expensive. To accommodate longer notes, groups of wax tablets were tied together, making a rather thick book-like object. Early in the Christian Era, some bright spark decided to do the same thing to parchment, and in doing so invented what we call the codex, the book’s most recognizable precursor. From there we move on to monasteries, Gutenberg and other aspects of printing and publishing history, but that’s another story for another blog. It may be that the e-reader is just the next step in books and book-making. However, I feel like I don’t have the same deep engagement with the very substance of the page when I’m holding an e-reader. This might just be the novelty of the device, but reading a book in electronic format leaves me feeling disconnected from the page and ink substance of a real book, the page and ink substance with which the book was originally written. This may not be true of many modern authors, who mostly type their works, but I feel very far from ancient authors, who wrote on parchment, wax, or the versatile substance of their own minds. I feel as though I’m cheating by reading Homer in English, let alone in English on an e-reader.

An e-reader also changes my own reception of a work. When I read electronic type, it’s usually because I am looking for some sort of information- where we’re meeting tomorrow night, a bibliographical reference, the news, the opening times of a shop. Reading an e-book makes me feel like I’m strip-mining the book for information, rather than enjoying a story or speech or history. E-readers are efficient, I suppose, but efficiency isn’t the point. I don’t read just to gain information- I read to read! This ties in with the whole “art for art’s sake” feeling I have about Classics and life in general.

So, Cicero, Homer, and the others- I promise you that I will stay close to you and your bookish, codex-y, waxy roots, and far away from e-readers.

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Three posts in three days, not bad!

Basically, I am a massive Doctor Who nerd- I love watching all the excitement and fake science whizzing by at the speed of a witticism. I’ll keep this short so as not to bore you all, but a big part of this series’ plot revolves around a persistent crack in time/space (watch out, the link has spoilers) which consumes anything in its path and does not simply destroy the object/person/race/planet, but also removes it completely from time, so that it never existed in the first place. Unfortunately, and since this has already been out on TV it won’t be a spoiler, one of the main characters in the new series dies and then is devoured by this crack. The Doctor insists that the character will continue to exist if only he can be held in memory, even if that is a sort of vicarious existence.

Since I am a nerd, I also watched the behind-the-scenes ‘Doctor Who Confidential’ for this episode, and the overwhelming impression I got from the interviews of the actors and writers is that it was bad enough for the character to die, but for him to be completely forgotten was “even worse”- as though being remembered would be a consolation for dying.

Whenever I think about death and remembrance, my thoughts go to the works of Homer- The Iliad and The Odyssey. In The Iliad, Achilles tells us that he was given a choice by his divine mother that he could die young but gain eternal glory, or live a long life with no glory at all (terrible translation here). He makes his choice and dies at Troy, remaining the archetypal warrior for centuries, inspiring such leaders as Alexander the Great. We can already see here, in a poem composed sometime in the Bronze Age, that people were already thinking that being remembered after your death was a suitable replacement for continuing to live.

However, in The Odyssey, Odysseus encounters Achilles as he wanders through the Underworld, and tells him that his fame back among the living is alive and well, though Achilles himself is dead. Here we can see quite a change from the Achilles we meet in The Iliad– he says that he would rather be the lowest slave alive on Earth than be king of the whole Underworld. Quite a change!

The question of living on in the remembrance of others probably shifted emphasis even more later when the Christian idea of heaven arrived, where the afterlife was not an aimless darkness, but a glorious space where the love of God is fully present for each individual. Nevertheless, we still persist in feeling, for reasons we can’t quite explain, that to be forgotten after your death is a very sad and serious problem. It’s why we have Memorial Day and Remembrance Day, among other commemorative holidays. Philosophers through time have battled with this issue, and I’d be interested to hear your collective wisdom, O Internet.

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As a self-appointed Classics ambassador, I obviously feel it my duty to defend my subject whenever the opportunity arises. Most of the time, this is in situations when the “use” of my subject is questioned. Admittedly, Classics has very few practical applications outside of academia, just like quantum physics or advanced mathematics. However, sometimes I find aspects of life where the use of Classics becomes clear (and no, I’m not just talking about columns, sewer systems or arches), and on such occasions I would just like to say “You’re welcome, world”.

  • Great Medical Terminology.  Today, for various reasons, I was reading about Marfan Syndrome, a disease which elongates the bones and causes heart problems. Two famous sufferers of this disease were Abraham Lincoln and the Pharaoh Akenaten (maybe). Anyway, the medical word for the elongation of limbs (according to Wikipedia, anyway) is dolichostenomelia. Now, I’m a strange sort of person who likes knowing what words mean, so out came my Ancient Greek dictionary. When you break down the word “dolichostenomelia”, it means literally “long-narrow-spearshaft”. Now that’s a much more beautiful image than “long-bony-ness”.
  • Shakespeare. Ok, admittedly, Shakespeare wasn’t an ancient, and I’m not referring to the fact that the Greeks invented theatre (though, again, you’re welcome). However, Shakespeare wrote at least four plays on Classical topics (Cymbeline, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus) and he cleverly used Classical names to the maximum in other plays. For example, in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, the character Proteus (whose affections are changeable, to put it nicely) is named after the Greek god of the same name, who was known for shape-shifting. Squirmy character, squirmy deity.
  • Great Scientific Terminology. This is slightly different from the medical entry above. Again, Wikipedia is my “source”. In Europe there are no hummingbirds, but they do have hummingbird moths, which resemble hummingbirds in almost every way except for the fact that they are not, of course, birds. Now, the scientific name for such a creature could have been “hummingbird-ish thing”, but instead it’s Macroglossum stellatarum, which means literally “long-tongued-starry-creature”. How beautiful.
  • Planet names. I know that people realize that the planets of our solar system are named after the Roman pantheon, but they are named such for a reason. For example, Jupiter, king of the gods, has the biggest planet, and its moons are named after his various conquests (though not his wife…). But it gets even more clever! Mars, for example, has two moons, named Phobos and Deimos. In Greek mythology, the god Ares (Greek name for Mars) had two horses named Fear and Panic. The Greek for fear and panic? Phobos and Deimos. Also, the moon of Pluto is called Charon, the ferryman of the dead across the River Styx.
  • Unintentionally Funny Names. I mentioned the lap-dancing club named ‘Medusa’ a few posts ago, but there are some more. For example Trojan condoms, or really anything named after the Trojans (USC, I’m looking at you here). Does no one remember that the Trojans lost the war because they allowed a breach in their walls to be opened for a suspiciously hollow horse, and were slaughtered en masse by Greeks? Not the best image for a condom designed to protect… Ajax cleaning powder, named after a man who went mad and killed a load of sheep thinking they were people, then killed himself. If anyone needed cleansing it was him… Achilles Global, whose motto is “Services for Sustainable Procurement”, when nothing about the original Achilles was in any way sustainable… And my favourite, the use of Medusa, the ugliest woman in the world punished for her vanity, as the logo of Versace. 

Anyway, enough gloating. No doubt I’ll be making new lists of things to thank Classics for as they occur to me.

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Recently I read on this website that Commodus, the emperor most famous for being killed by Russell Crowe in the film ‘Gladiator’, hardly resembled his film persona. Here’s what the site says:

Commodus, the hare-lipped Roman Emperor who lusted after his sister in the film, was in real life held in high esteem by the senate and ruled for a successful 13 years (rather than the ineffectual few months depicted in the film). Also, though the Emperor did, in fact, have an enthusiasm for gladiatorial combat (he did so incognito), he didn’t get his ticket punched in the arena. He was killed in the bath by a wrestler named Narcissus to prevent him taking office as consul.

Admittedly, the film ‘Gladiator’ has a lot to answer for. For instance, they get the geography of Rome wrong; Marcus Aurelius probably would never have addressed his son as ‘Commodus’, as his first name was Lucius; he was indeed killed by a man called Narcissus (no relation to the Narcissus of Echo and gardening fame); he ruled from 177 to 192 AD, not a few months or weeks, and he probably wasn’t incestuous (though he wouldn’t be the first…). However, I feel this misguided website needs a spot of correction.

1. I doubt very much that the emperor was held “in high esteem” by the Senate. The Roman Senate was in the practice of handing out awards to emperors for just about no reason, so the awards he accumulated were about as reflective of their “esteem” as giving him someone’s collection of pocket lint. Also, when he died, the Senate issued a ‘damnatio memoriae’ against him, which involved erasing his name from inscriptions, destroying or altering his statues, and sometimes pulling down buildings which he built. So much for “high esteem”.

2. As for his rule being “successful”, define success. He did stop the Second Germanic War, but what else? According to my source (which is, surprisingly, not Wikipedia, but a book called ‘Roman Coins and Their Values’ by David Sear), he retired from public life and left the daily running of the Empire to various favourites.

3. “Enthusiasm for gladiatorial combat” doesn’t quite cut it. He was so keen on fighting beasts in the arena that Sear says that he “disgraced the purple”. Also, Roman emperors are notoriously bad at doing anything incognito, and there would have been little point in fighting wild beasts incognito- if the ringside assistants don’t know you’re the Emperor, how will they know when to save you, rather than letting you be ripped apart for entertainment?

4. The article fails to mention that Commodus was quite, quite mad. The picture of Commodus used by the website for this article is a statue of him as Hercules, the super-strong god, and the likeness isn’t just for artistic effect. Sear says that Commodus believed himself to be Hercules reincarnated, and made people worship him. Statues of Hercules-Commodus were set up in public places to remind the people what was what (or who was who).

So there you have it. It turns out that you can’t believe what you see on the cinema or read on the Internet. Except here- here you are safe. Relatively.

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Wow, I win the prize for the weirdest entry title ever.

A very small piece of news: I was reading the very good Classical magazine Minerva at work today, and I read a review of an exhibition in Athens about daily life in Ancient Greece. They include a section about war in antiquity, and there was a Cyrpiot lead “bullet”, which would have been flung from a sling, which had the name ‘Philetair’. The article also said, “… sling bullets form a particularly interesting exhibit as, in a form of psychological warfare, they were inscribed with names (presumably of the ‘senders’), or sometimes with the phrase ‘take that!’.” Does this remind anyone else of ‘Dr. Strangelove’, with the nuclear bomb and its anti-USSR slogans? Still, I think the Greek way was better- no one will be able to read the messages painted on an atom bomb, but when you have ‘take that’ impressed into your skin after a nasty hit… that’s psychological warfare.

Also, thank you so much to all those participating in Rebecca Reid’s Really Old Classics Challenge for stopping by with your interesting comments about the My Encyclopaedia post I did a while back. I get the feeling I’m going to have to do an entire post on the merits of various Classical translations some time soon, and maybe another post of must-reads!

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I just moved into a new house! I’m living with some friends from university and I have a job in another city.  The commute (I estimate) is roughly 1 1/2 hours, so I have stocked up on rather a lot of books to keep me going on long train rides, and I thought I’d list some of them here:

Thomas Mann- Death in Venice and Other Stories

Aravind Adiga- The White Tiger

Sarah Vowell- Assassination Vacation

Cormac McCarthy- No Country For Old Men

e e cummings- Selected Poems 1923- 1958

Cullen Murphy- Are We Rome?

David Sedaris- When You Are Engulfed In Flames (this is one of the funniest books I have ever read)

Jon McGregor- if nobody speaks of remarkable things (simply beautiful- it makes you think in poetry)

Charlotte Roche- Wetlands (definitely NOT for the squeamish)

Alexandre Dumas- The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43

Herman Melville- Moby Dick

Christopher Booker- The Seven Basic Plots

Richard Nelson Bolles- What Color Is Your Parachute?

Charles Elton- Mr Toppit

Philip Gourevitch- We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

And, of course, a few classical ones:

Simon Goldhill- Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matters

Ted Hughes- Tales From Ovid

Sophocles- The Theban Plays  and Electra and Other Plays

Aeschylus- Prometheus Bound and Other Plays

Suetonius- The Twelve Caesars

Apollonius of Rhodes- The Voyages of the Argo

Christopher Kelly- The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction (one of my professors wrote a very good VSI about Classics, and another wrote a great one on Classical mythology. Brilliant series!)

Homer- The Iliad and The Odyssey (because no Classicist’s room is complete without!)

Virgil- The Aeneid

Euripides- Medea and Other Plays

Aeschylus- The Oresteia

Peter Parsons- City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish (a great book about Oxyrynchus, a town in Egypt whose recently-discovered rubbish tip contained large sections from ancient texts, some of which we didn’t have before. Yay!)

And that’s only some of them! I have a few more books, mostly religious ones, such as some C. S. Lewis texts. Can anyone suggest any more I should look into?

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A quick post before bed.

I have discovered a few things since graduation:

1. My sleeping timetable is completely broken. Everyone in my house is asleep, but here I am, reading CakeWrecks and playing FreeCell. Good times.
2. The Bay of Naples is beautiful, particularly if you can avoid getting mugged, as I did. Another post for another time.
3. When you don’t study Classics, your country becomes Soviet.

I’m serious about the last one! I’m reading the incredible ‘Child 44’ by Tom Rob Smith, which is set in the USSR in the 1950s, and came across this passage (most important bit in bold):

Secondary School 7- a rectangular building raised on concrete legs- happened to be one of the gems of the State education policy. Much photographed and publicized, it was opened by none other than Nikita Khrushchev, who’d made a speech in the new gymnasium, the floor of which had been waxed to such an extent that his bodyguards struggled not to slip. He’d claimed that education must be tailored to the country’s needs. And what the country needed were highly productive, healthy young scientists, engineers and Olympic gold-medal-winning athletes. The cathedral-sized gymnasium, adjacent to the main building, was wider and deeper than the school itself, equipped with an indoor running track, an array of mats, hoops, rope ladders and springboards, all of which were put to good use by an extra-curricular timetable that included an hour of training every day for every student regardless of age or ability. The implication of both his speech and the design of the school itself had been always very clear to Raisa: the country didn’t need poets, philosophers and priests. It needed productivity that could be measured and quantified, success that could be timed with a stopwatch.

So there you have it. If no one is allowed to do Classics, we’ll all end up in Soviet Russia (where, as we all know, education learns you).

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