The Ancient World

Posted Monday, June 13, 2011 - 08:01

Every year, in late March and early April, I’m consumed with putting together Booklist’s annual Mystery Showcase issue. For more than a month, my mind is clogged with crime novels: reading them, writing about them, editing what others have written about them, etc. But when that issue finally sleeps its Big Sleep, I run as far as I can from all things mystery—at least for a while. I watch golf on TV, I cook, I even do the laundry, and when I read, I read nonfiction—something that has absolutely nothing to do with the crime genre. This habit leads me to some very unlikely books. Take this year. Had I not been in my run-away-from-mystery frame of mind, I’m sure I would never had picked up Natalie Haynes’s The Ancient Guide to Modern Life.

I’m no classicist. The only Latin I know is “veni, vidi, vici,” and that’s because it keeps popping up in crossword puzzles. But I am a Homer buff, having read Robert Fagles’s translation of The Iliad not that long ago and then listened to Derek Jacobi’s absolutely entrancing reading of the epic on audio. So Haynes’s title caught my eye, and I’m very glad it did. The author is a British television commentator, a stand-up comedian, and a devoted student of the classics, and she has produced a delightfully entertaining and enlightening guide to the ancient world. In a jaunty, freewheeling style more akin to a comic monologue than a discourse on the classics, she moves through various overarching subjects (politics, law, religion, women, the arts, money), both describing how each was approached in the classical world and reflecting on what the attitudes and actions of the Greeks and Romans can tell us about our own behavior in the very different (but shockingly similar) modern world.

Along the way, tasty anecdotes drop from the pages as readily as grapes falling into a toga-clad hedonist’s mouth. Take, for example, the Roman satirist Juvenal ranting that what makes Rome intolerable in August isn’t the heat or the teeming crowds; no, the really offensive part about Rome in August is the overabundance of bad poets wandering about reciting verses. Sounds like a street fair I attended in Chicago not long ago.

Then there’s the matter of Odysseus and the Cyclops Polyphemus. Sure, I remember the story from The Odyssey, but I’d forgotten the part about how Odysseus, before blinding the Cyclops, identified himself as a guy named No One. Then, when the blinded Cyclops shouts for help, he bellows that No One has hurt him. His buddies, the other Cyclopes, don’t get it. Why make such a fuss about not being hurt? Who knew that Abbott and Costello stole the whole premise for “Who’s on First?” from Homer!

Haynes has really sparked my interest in all things classical. Could this be the moment when I finally tackle The Aeneid? Or will I slip back into my comfort zone and dig into more crime novels? Keep reading this column, and you’ll find out soon.

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