Mary Beard: “Two books that made me think that classics was a subject worth studying seriously”

From a New York Times By the Book interview with author Mary Beard:

What books are on your night stand?

Currently I am reading Elif Shafak’s “The Island of Missing Trees,” about love across the divides of civil war in Cyprus, and about a fig tree. It’s wonderful. I never imagined enjoying a book in which one of the main characters is a tree, but it has worked for me….And I just finished re-enjoying Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun.”

What’s the last great book you read?

I am not sure what you mean by “great” here. If you mean, “a book that I am as close to certain as possible will still be read in 100 years’ time, will be on school syllabuses, etc. etc.,” then I guess I would say Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Change the definition slightly and you might get a different answer….

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

In my fantasy, it is sprawling in the sun, by a Mediterranean swimming pool, with a bottle of wine, a bowl of olives and a new novel. But it is a fantasy (in real life it is always too hot, and you can’t quite manage to read easily in your sunglasses … and the wine makes you nod off anyway). The truth is that I enjoy sitting at my desk at home or in a library, with a pile of books in front of me, pen and notebook in hand (I still make notes in the old-fashioned way). A bit dull perhaps, but sensible.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

I think that since she won the Booker Prize, no book by Bernardine Evaristo is unheard of, but I always used to bring up her “The Emperor’s Babe” in answer to this kind of question. It’s a novel in verse about a Black woman in Roman Britain and the Roman emperor Septimus Severus. I remember being sent it to review and, before I had actually opened it, being very sniffy about the whole idea. But I soon found that I was wrong to be sniffy. It’s smart, clever, super-imaginative.

What books got you interested in Ancient Rome and the classics?

There are two books in particular that prompted me to think that classics was a subject worth studying seriously. The first was Moses Finley’s “The World of Odysseus.” I had read quite a bit of Homer’s “Odyssey” at high school (some in Greek, but mostly in English!); but it was Finley’s book that made me see that you could think about the “Odyssey” historically and that there were big historical questions about what kind of society was being depicted, and whether it ever existed. Then there was E. R. Dodds’s “The Greeks and the Irrational.” It was the first book to make me see that there was as much “irrationality” as “rationality” in the ancient world — and so-called “irrationality” seemed much more exciting to me in the early 1970s….

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

An insight, rather than a thing … I am currently trying to understand the world of the Roman imperial court, the violence, the murder and yet in some sense the day-to-day normality of it all. I decided to reread Jonathan Spence’s “Emperor of China,” a constructed “autobiography” of K’ang-hsi, who ruled China in the late 17th and early 18th century C.E. What it made me understand better was what it was like to be a decent human being living in a world in which murder was an almost accepted part of the repertoire for solving problems…

For readers new to the classics, what books make the best entree to the great works of antiquity?

Always start with Homer’s “Odyssey.” It is such a foundational text for so much of the rest of the Western cultural tradition, while at the same time questioning that tradition before it was born. It raises big issues about what we think “civilization” is, the long history of turning our enemies into “barbarians” and why it might be “us” who are the barbarians, not “them.” No wonder it has been so important for writers and artists such as Derek Walcott and Romare Bearden.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

I have no guilt whatsoever about any of my book pleasures. So I am happy to say how much I love popular novels about ancient Rome, Lindsey Davis’s Falco mysteries and Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy. (He has done more for Cicero in the modern world than most academics put together.)…

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have a little section of Black Power literature going back to the late ’60s and early ’70s. I then lived in rural England, but I had got very interested in U.S. politics. So, I used to give the local bookshop a real challenge in getting me books by Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and more. They still have their place on my shelves.

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