Confronting the Classics
This collection of historian Mary Beard's reviews of books about classics is a source of wisdom, insight, provocation, and deep pleasure.
Reviewed for The Barnes & Noble Review by Peter LewisSkip to next paragraph
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That the review is being written means the book has been finished, which is a shame. You want it to go on, like "1001 Nights," to keep delivering the pleasures of an entertainment that lifts you to higher ground. So read it again. Read it from start to finish, or finish to start, or inside out – for this collection of Mary Beard's book reviews can be consumed in the order you wish and will nourish you time and again with insights and provocations you missed the first few times through.
These are Book Reviews among book reviews: incisive rather than mean, exacting but not prim, generous with acuity, as inviting as Robert Frost's "The Pasture," and blessed with a good storyteller's instinctive connection to the audience.
Confronting the Classics showcases Beard's familiarity with antiquity, its thoroughfares and back alleys, or at least what can be known of them, for Beard will be the first to admit that much can't. That doesn't mean there is no place for conjecture, it just needs to have footing. There are elemental rules at play: do the research, appreciate what you can of the surrounding circumstances, join the dots, and if you have something new to add, make it work. Otherwise, hope Beard doesn't review your book.
It is not that Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University and the classics editor at the Times Literary Supplement, is always serious. She has a bright humor to complement her rangy curiosity and razory skepticism; a dose of playfulness and mirth inhabit the obvious feeling of joy she finds in her work. On the other hand, in her view certain essentials are at stake in the study of antiquity. Of course if we can find a way to make the ancient world make sense to us, it might help us better understand our world. But there is something more fundamental than that, something that touches on loss and longing: "the terrifying fragility of our connections with distant antiquity.... the fear of the barbarians at the gates and that we are simply not up to the preservation of what we value."
But although our links to it might be ever tenuous, for Beard antiquity is never far away. Aristophanes, Boadicea, Thucydides, Cicero, Korinna, and the "bit-part emperors" may have lived thousands of years ago, but we have held an abiding engagement with them and their classical world, and we have engaged with our predecessors' engagement with the classics, all that has happened in the space between antiquity and ourselves. "It would be impossible now to understand Dante without Virgil, John Stuart Mill without Plato, Donna Tartt without Euripides, Rattigan without Aeschylus." Sever the classics from the modern world and it "would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture."