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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

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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As with all historical fiction, Manfredi has the basic problem that the basic plot of his book is selected for him already- namely the final days of Julius Caesar until his assassination in the Senate House on 15 March 44 B.C.- so I was interested in how he was going to liven it up for someone who was already quite acquainted with the story. Manfredi wrote a very good series on Alexander the Great, which I read ages ago, and he’s had some commercial success with his books ‘Spartan‘ and ‘The Last Legion‘. In addition to this, he is a Professor of Classics in Italy, so he knows his stuff.

The story of Julius Caesar is exciting, but usually only when you’re hearing or seeing it for the first time- the portents in the sky, the mysterious soothsayer, the murder of the most powerful man in Rome- but after that it can get a bit flat. So to jazz up the storyline a bit, Manfredi invents a side story about a man racing to Rome to tell Caesar that his life is in danger. Meanwhile, back in the city, Caesar’s closest companion (invented, I believe, though there is a helpful glossary in the back to tell you which characters are real and which fake) is trying to find out Brutus’ plot before it’s too late, with the help of some useful Greek slaves. Oh, and Caesar’s epilepsy is playing up again, and he has to juggle his wife Calpurnia, his ex-mistress Servilia and current mistress Cleopatra, whom Antony’s been making eyes at, while preparing an attack on the East to avenge a lost legion and worrying about the Roman people thinking he wants to be king… phew!

All in all, I thought the book was quite good, though not stellar. In fact, the moment I found most exciting was the brief description of the opening ceremonies at Caesar’s funeral, which marked the close of the book. Still, I suppose it was nice to hint a bit at the new civil war to come, rather than finishing with Caesar’s crumpled body on the floor of the Senate. One criticism I have is that the tension was not quite as high as I would have liked, especially the moments where those investigating the plot think they might be about to be caught, though I was surprised at how engrossed I became in the final few scenes of Caesar’s life- will he go to the Senate? will he read the message in time?- despite knowing exactly what happens. I felt the death scene didn’t take long enough either. I like my deaths slow-mo, like in films- that way you can tell that they’re especially important and tragic. It wouldn’t necessarily have been that hard to do either for a writer of Manfredi’s expertise. A closer glimpse into Caesar’s mind would have been appreciated too. Does he want to be king? Does he just want to survive? What does he really think? Instead the lead roles in the story are given to other people, which seems a shame.

Enough wingeing! I did enjoy the revitalized role of Cleopatra in this book, as well as Antony’s slimyness. The relationship between Caesar and Calpurnia, his barren wife, was particularly poignant, as was that between Brutus and Porcia. He has a good eye for detail, and he really shed a bit of light on a few minor aspects of Roman life, like the little wayside inns on the road to Rome. I guess I would recommend this book to people who might not be very well-versed in Classics yet and/or want to put a human face on well-known events, but I doubt I would mention it to people who already know the story too well to be surprised by anything new.

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Three days ago, I graduated from university! It was an exciting, arcane ceremony involving holding someone’s finger (NB- not pulling it, like my father suggested) and then kneeling before the Chancellor’s representative and swearing silent fealty, all while wearing rather a lot more cloth than the hot day required (for more information, see the latest installment of Mary Beard’s blog). It was marvellous, and it was wonderful to have so many family members there from overseas to see me.

While leaving my place of learning for the past three years was strange, and I’m sure it will feel stranger in October when I suddenly find I’m not, in fact, going to the same room I’ve had for three years, I’m finding the break with no threat of reading lists and preparation for next year very liberating. For one thing, it means that I have time to read.

I rediscovered reading this Easter when I took a trip to Strasbourg as a research assistant for a Music PhD who can’t read Latin.  I bought two books to take with me on the trip and was pleasantly surprised by how much I had missed reading for pleasure and how hungry I was for it. I read ‘Persepolis’ in less than a day, and had finished ‘Revolutionary Road’ in only three or four. I should have been reading ‘Foucault’s Virginity’, but I wasn’t.  For once, I didn’t read text in order to glean tidbits to throw into my exam essays- I was reading because it is something I love, and have loved since I learned how to read in the first place.

Reading for pleasure also allows me to re-connect with the reasons why I started to study Classics in depth (as does watching Disney’s ‘Hercules’, but that’s not pertinent now). I’ve begun reading snatches of Ted Hughes’ reworking of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ to my Classics-deprived boyfriend, and it’s a wonderful book. For a start, though the sections share a common theme, they also stand alone as stories and can be dipped into and out of as I like. Hughes’ poetry also brings back Ovid’s own poetry- as I have commented before, many translations of ancient texts do not preserve the poetic format in which the texts were composed for the sake of accuracy, but in this case, as with Heaney’s ‘Beowulf’ or ‘Antigone’ or Christopher Logue’s ‘War Music’ (which I highly recommend), the poetry is returned.

Mind you, I’ve been reading non-Classical texts as well, and finished Zoe Heller’s ‘The Believers’ only an hour or so ago, and I strongly recommend it. I’ve bought a few more to take on a trip to Naples with me next week, so hopefully I should return with much to say about the city and about literature.

P.S.  I highly recommend reading Mary Beard’s book ‘Pompeii’– I have, and I know it’ll be in the forefront of my mind when I go travelling.

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