Monday, January 9, 2017

Introduction and Book #1, Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

Greetings, 50 Books Project folks! I'm a coworker of Chloe's, and am very excited to be coming along for the 2017 50 Books Project. In addition to this blog, I'm also upping my reading game this year by participating in Book Riot's Read Harder 2017 challenge. For classification purposes, a few of the requirements for the Book Riot are comics/graphic novels, which I enjoy reading, but I count graphic novels in a separate category when I'm tallying my year-end book count. I'll post reviews of the comics I read, but I'll not be counting them toward the 50 books for the year.

My first book of the year was Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard, kind of an overview and a critical rethinking of the way we approach Greek and Roman literature. I read Beard's excellent SPQR last year, and added this to my To Read shelf on the BPL app immediately afterwards, figuring a time would come when I would like to dip my toe back into the classical waters. I didn't do a lot of prior reading about this book, but I thought it was essentially a series of essays about the Ancient World, which has always been a great interest of mine. (I studied abroad in Rome for a semester in college, where I learned very little Italian, but much about Roman art and architecture.) And the book is, in fact, a series of essays - however, the essays are reviews on the work of other academics. Far from being the new look at old ideas that I had hoped for, a lot of Confronting the Classics felt like inside baseball, except the baseball was being played in University halls instead of the Forum.

This is not to say that the book did not have noble aims - showing that the Classics are a living subject, all indications to the contrary. And when Beard is on, she's on - a reinvestigation of Nero was particularly interesting. If he was the reviled dictator who fiddled while Rome burned that we've all been told he was, why did several people step forward, pretending to be him, immediately after his assassination? Clearly he could not have been despised the way we've been taught. A rumination on the Laocoon group and its arm placements was also worthwhile. Her chapter on the grave of a bread maker in Rome is also quite charming (so charming that she expanded upon it in SPQR - I was momentarily stunned that I knew anything about this monument until I remembered why). However, a chapter on a book about the life of an Oxford Classicist, RG Collingwood, who died in 1943, seems out of place. Likewise, a chapter on the Dictionary of British Classicists. 

There is a lot to think about in Confronting the Classics, and Beard is a lively and witty writer, but I cannot recommend this when SPQR is out there, as well. For completists only. 


Brent Waggoner said...

Welcome, Jeremiah! Great first review! SQPR is on my list for this year, hopefully.

Christopher said...


As a Latin major, I think I've had enough of the inside of this particular baseball. I loved SPQR too, but gonna pass on this one.