The Chastity Question:  Juvenal’s “Satire VI” and Euripides’s “Hippolytus”

It is fair to assess Juvenal as a sexist, and to admire Euripides for his sympathy toward women.   And that’s why I was startled to read Juvenal’s satire on chastity (Satire VI) and Euripides’s Hippolytus and realize they were writing about the same subject.

Two writers could not be more different in style and approach. in fifth-century Athens, Euripides was often satirized by Greek poets and his tragedies were not appreciated until after his death. Juvenal, a satirist in Rome in the late first century and early second century A.D., was a stand-up comic poet who dealt in jeers and gibes: he lampoons every hypocrite, hack writer, whore, adulterer, aristocrat, politician, shopkeeper, and street vendor. in his view, Rome literally stank. Satire VI is a comical but overlong and often tiresome invective against unchaste women.

 On the other hand, Euripides is a compassionate realist who parses the emotions that drive his characters. Euripides is generous; it is the gods who are unkind.  In Hippolytus, Queen Phaedra, who honors the goddess Aphrodite, falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, a fanatically chaste, arrogant worshiper of Artemis.

But let me start with Juvenal’s one-sided perspective on unchaste women. He begins Satire VI at the beginning of time, when the Earth was new. (The translations of Juvenal below are mine.)

“I believe,” Juvenal begins, “that Chastity lingered for a long time on Earth, when Saturn was king, when the cave provided homes and the fire and household gods and masters were covered with common darkness, and when the mountain wife strewed the woodland couch with leaves and and straw and skins of wild animals.“

After this pastoral introduction, Juvenal  begins to rage. Comic rants are the gist of his satire.  He raves that men should not marry: they would be better off sleeping with pretty boys than being married to cheating women. 

Here’s why women won’t be chaste:  Juvenal says they would rather have sex with gay actors, or run away with ugly, famous gladiators than stay with the boring husbands who support them.  Aelia is in love with a queer actor who plays women’s roles in tragedy, while Hispulla is having a passionate affair with another tragic actor.  Juvenal asks if young Hispula can really be expected to prefer an aging professor, Quintilian? After this brief taunt, Juvenal returns to lambasting women.

But here’s my favorite passage:  Juvenal says that bluestocking women are even more disagreeable than the unchaste women.  When an educated woman talks about poetry at a dinner party, it stops all conversation. 

She praises Virgil, forgives Dido about to kill herself, and compares poets, balancing Virgil on one side of the scale and  Homer on the other. The grammarians yield to her expertise, the orators are overcome, the whole crowd is silent, and neither the special pleader nor the herald speak up. And not even another woman.

Euripides’s Hippolytus is complex and sympathetic, sensitive to the plight of a powerful woman.  Phaedra, the wife of King Theseus, is restless and disturbed: she has fallen in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, a chaste devotee of the goddess Artemis. Hippolytus spends his time in healthy pursuits, riding horses and driving chariots on the beach. No doubt he flexes his gleaming muscles and enchants everyone. Phaedra is lovesick but has no intention of telling her love..

She is cynical about chastity. The following passages are translated by David Grene.

Truly, too,/ I hate lip-worshippers of chastity who own/ a lecherous daring when they have privacy./ O Cypris, Sea-Born Goddess, how can they/ look frankly in the faces of their husbands/ and never shiver with fear lest their accomplice,/ the darkness, and the rafters of the house/ take voice and cry aloud?

And then a disaster occurs. Phaedra’s nurse betrays her, thinking that Hippolytus will reciprocate Phaedra’s feelings and rush into her arms.  The nurse does not understand the complexity of the situation.

rHippolytus’s sneering, hubristic reaction is similar to Juvenal’s rant.

Women!  This coin which men find counterfeit /  Why, why, Lord Zeus, did you put them in the world,/ in the light of the sun? If you were so determined/ to breed the race of man, the source/ should not have been women.

And now we reach the impasse, aporia (literally “no way out”). Phaedra is “ruined” by her nurse’s interference;. Hippolytus sneers at her and looks forward to telling his father.  Who is right?  Who is wrong?  Phaedra intended to keep her feelings private: it is the nurse who took it upon herself to play the go-between. Hippolytus has an extreme case of hubris, and yet we understand his repulsion. Both characters are out of balance because of their failure to honor both Aphrodite and Artemis.

Nothing good will come of this. There is no deus ex machina here.

I love Euripides, but, as always, have mixed feelings about Juvenal.

What the Dickens? The Funniest Annotation Ever on Juvenal & Indecipherable Travel Notes

We have duplicate copies of Dickens’s novels.  If it exists, we would like to  donate them to the  What the Dickens? bookshop

My husband points out that the name What the Dickens? would be a PR disaster.  For one thing,  people no longer say, “What the Dickens?” For another, the average person, unless he or she is shopping at Barnes & Noble,  prefers  to frequent bookshops with simple names containing the word ”books.”   And it is true that every independent bookshop in the state (except one) is called [Something] Books or the [Something] Bookshop.

The phrase “What the Dickens?” is obsolete in the 21st century, of course. It was not thriving in the 20th century, either. “What the Dickens are you doing?” my mother occasionally said. The phrase was  a polite reprimand for any number of silly, annoying things:  burning incense (it stank), wearing an Army jacket (we were citizens co-opting an army jacket as an anti-war protest tactic), or pinning a Frodo Lives! button on  a good sweater.

And it turns out that the expression What the Dickens? has nothing to do with Dickens. When  I looked it up in an old Webster’s dictionary I learned that  “dickens” means “devil” or “demon,” and is “used in exclamations or as a mild imprecation.” It is related to the proper names, Dick and Dicken, and was first seen 1590-1600, the lexicographer believes.

One shouldn’t even capitalize Dickens. What the dickens?

More on Annotation & a Comic Note on Juvenal’s Satires

Journal, 2015-2017

I have gently mocked the personal annotation trend and recommended keeping books pristine.

I am a notebook fan when it comes to note-taking. Today I came across an orange Moleskine notebook, which I dedicated to a variety of purposes from 2015 to 2017.

It is mostly a traditional book journal, with a few jottings and quotes. And t wrote what is probably the funniest modern annotation  on  Juvenal’s Satire VI (p. 40, in the Foiio Society edition). Juvenal in English is not for prudes, but his satires are more obscene in Latin, and like all Roman satirists, he is a misogynist. (The gentle Horace is even more misogynistic in his satires.) It is a genre thing. You have to accept it. Like Lenny Bruce.

Juvenal’s derision of women who fit the profile of groupies is so sharp and funny and true that I noted in response:   “Monica Lewinsky.”

Juvenal writes, “Others in winter, when the theaters are closed…/ will yearningly fondle souvenirs of their favorite actor,/their tragedy king-  his mask, his thyrsis, his jock-strap.”

My illegible travel writing is less successful. I observed on one trip,  “It is a [something] culture.” But what kind of culture? i can make out an “s.t”  Stream?  Street?  Steampunk?  Stylish? Stodgy? Stunning?

At the time the notes meant something [Something?].

The Case for Pristine Books:  Step Away from the Highlighter!

This person got carried away with “annotation.”

I read a charming article in The Washington Post about a strange new trend. It seems that myriad bloggers and vloggers have a penchant for “annotation” of books, i.e.,  underlining favorite passages, scrawling in the margins, and flagging pages with stickie notes and paper clips. 

My eyes were round as saucers as I read the article.   I do not write in books. I do not underline with colored pens. I do not comment in the margins.  And I never buy a used book with even light marginalia.  

You cannot sell a used book with marginalia, either. In graduate school, my husband and I sold our books to eke out our tiny stipends. We learned that a clean book is worth more than a book scrawled with notes.  A cockroach once crawled out of one of my husband’s books: Johannes, the shop owner, gave him a withering look.  Johannes rejected one of my books on the basis of coffee stains. As for notes in books, Johannes disapproved of anything beyond one’s name written on an endpage, and that he clearly thought unnecessary.

Johannes taught us that books are important objects in their own right. I never saw a single book in that shop with writing in it.

It’s not that I’m against annotation, though I call it marginalia. But I prefer to take notes in a notebook. I write the page number beside my notes.

Step away from the highlighter, ma’am!

Booker Prize Winner Announcement Today: Our Family Predictions

The 2023 Booker Prize will be announced today at 3 p.m. (Central Standard Time) or 9 p.m. (UK time). You can watch the ceremony live on YouTube.

And what could be more fun than watching a bunch of writers gossip, nibble banquet food, and drink inexpensive wine or water, while they are mentally practicing their witty, charming, or possibly earnest acceptance speeches? Are they nervous or relaxed? Let us hope the latter.

Query:  Why is the the Booker announced on a Sunday and why so late in the year?  Hypothesis:  Christmas shopping. I am not adverse to rushing  to a bookstore to buy the winner or a runner-up.  N.B. We in the U.S. have missed Black Friday and Small Business Saturday deals, though. Couldn’t it have been announced on Wednesday or Thursday?

Query:  What do writers wear to awards ceremonies?  Do they get dressed up in sparkly gowns and tuxedos, or wear skirts with threads hanging from the hem or the old sports jacket they wore at prep school? Hypothesis: The women will dress neatly, probably in new dresses or pant suits, the men in whatever is clean, unless their wives lay out their outfits for them.

And now for our family prize predictions: Captain Nemo  and I have read two shortlisted books and two longlisted books. It will be an upset if the longlisted books win! Ha!

Here is our brief discussion.

What did you like or dislike about the books, Captain Nemo?

Captain Nemo:  “I  read Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting and  Sebastian Murray’s Old God’s Time.  Two Irishmen.

The Bee Sting is a long, good read, with a few slow spots, but overall is a very good long book.  The language is beautiful in Old God’s Time, but the story didn’t always seem believable.”

Which should win?

“Sebastian Barry’s for language, The Bee Sting for plot.”

What did you like or dislike about the books, Kat?

Me:  I read Paul Harding’s shortlisted This Other Eden and the longlisted Tan Twan Eng’s The House of Doors.

This Other Eden is intense and gorgeously written, the story of three generations of a multi-racial community on a remote island, and the consequences when white people interfere in the early 20th century   The House of Doors is a lovely, quiet novel that alternates the story of W. H. Maugham and his friends Lesley and Robert Hamley in Penang. Lesley’s tragic stories of life in Penang influence Maugham’s short stories.”

Which should win?

“Harding’s book is perfect.  It should win hands down. But I also loved Eng’s slightly uneven novel.”

Good luck to the winner, whoever he or she may be!

Only one hour and fifteen minutes till the ceremony!

Paperback Nation:  My Favorite Classics Publishers

Paperback reader (paperback reader)
Paperback reader (paperback reader)
Paperback reader (paperback reader)
Paperback reader (paperback reader)

–A riff on the chorus of “Paperback Writer” (The Beatles)

When I try to calculate how many paperbacks we have, I wish that I had paid more (any) attention in math. We have hundreds of paperback classics, and some are duplicates. We have Conrad and Colette, Dickens and Dostoevsky, George Eliot and T.S. Eliot. A multitude of publishers specialize in classics, and we have a variety of editions to choose from. Here are some of my favorite publishers of classics, and a few words about them.

A variety of Penguins.

1.  Penguin Classics

According to a brief precis on the back page of a Penguin,  the first Penguin classic was published in 1945, E. V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. Penguin stresses that classics were not widely available at the time except to students and scholars. Penguin brought affordable classics to the masses.

Penguins dominate our shelves. For one thing, they are attractive, with orange, green, or black spines, according to the era of publication, and are easy to find in bookstores. I appreciate the scholarly notes and fascinating introductions. Does any publisher have a more varied list of classics?

Penguin has branched out into a number of different classics lines in recent years. The Penguin Deluxe Classics are oversized paperbacks, with bold, original, sometimes cartoonish covers.  I love the outre, slightly surreal Jane Austen covers (Jane was nothing if not humorous) and the gritty realism of the the cover of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. On the other hand, the covers of Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter are grotesque.  But the Deluxe editions have the same notes and introductions found in the “straight” Penguins.

I also love the sturdy, attractive Penguin Clothbound Classics, with wallpaper=like cover designs by Coralie Bickford.  I never enjoyed Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea until I read it in the beautiful Penguin hardcover.  It is not my favorite of her books, but covers do matter! And these hardbacks too have the intros and notes from the original Penguins.

2.  Oxford World’s Classics

Oxford World’s Classics has been in business for “more than 100 years,” says its website. I am very fond of Oxfords: I like their covers, and the contrast of their white covers with their rival Penguins’ dark. Penguins and Oxfords are almost interchangeable to me. Both have excellent introductions and notes, but Oxfords go one step farther, providing a Chronology that compares the events in the author’s life with the main events and books published at the same time.

The print in the Oxfords is of a comfortable size and has enough space between the lines to be easy on the eye. Over the years I have acquired three “generations” of Oxfords, the yellows, then the red-and-whites, and now the whites. To be honest, I preferred the red-and-whites.  But all of them are gorgeous, so why complain? Oxford World’s Classics also has a hardcover line, with only 10 or so books. The Oxford hardcover War and Peace, translated by the Maudes and updated by a modern translator, is very nice indeed.

Vintage classics

4. Vintage Classics

The Vintage classics win my heart because they are so pretty.

Founded in the UK in 1990, Vintage features an eclectic group of authors ranging from Angela Carter to Fumiko Enchi, Irina Ratushinskaya to Nancy Mitford, Willa Cather to Charles Dickens, and W. Somerset Maugham to Ford Madox Ford.  The covers have always been gorgeous, but in 2007 the red signature spine made them even more eye-catching. .  Really, I adore those books. There are no notes, and only occasionally short introductions, but I can do without either.

4.  University of Chicago Press

The best translations of the Complete Greek Tragedies, edited by Richmond Lattimore and David Grene, are published by the University of Chicago. This was a huge project of Lattimore and Grene’s, who translated some of the plays themselves, but recruited other poets and classicists, among them Robert Fitzgerald, for others.   The translations are close to the Greek, as close as you’re likely to get.  The University of Chicago also publishes Lattimore’s beautiful translation of Homer’s Iliad.

5. Dover Publications

Founded in 1941, Dover publishes inexpensive, attractive editions of hard-to-find classics such as Anatole France’s Penguin Island, Le Fanu’s Complete Ghost Stories, and The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick. They publish mainstream classics, too, but beware of the shorter Dover Thrift Classics: my copy of Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World had tiny print and no margins on the page, so I could not read it. No problem at all with the LONGER books, though, such as Dostoevksy’s Demons. Dover recently changed ownership, so perhaps someone forgot about margins. But over the years they have published a glorious variety of books, and you can still buy out-of=print Dovers online.

6.  Otto Penzler Presents American Mystery Classics

I have discovered many spellbinding American Golden Age classics through Otto Penzler’s series.  We hear so much about Golden Age English detective novels that we forget the American writers were also working in this era. :Among my favorites are Ellery Queen’s The Spanish Cape Mystery, Charlotte Armstrong’s The Unsuspected, H. F. Heard’s A Taste for Honey, and Stuart Palmer’s The Puzzl of the Happy Hooligan.

What are your favorite publishers of classics? Are you a Penguin person, or a groupie of a publisher I haven’t mentioned here?


Rumors of Loneliness:  True or False?

What filter?

The concept of loneliness on the internet is widely accepted.  Loneliness, period,  is clickbait.  Editors and writers are susceptible to studies on  loneliness.  Editor to reporter:  “Write a piece on loneliness on the internet. Check out the University of Blah study.  Good stuff!”

We all want to be happy, we all want loads of friends, we all socialize with our dysfunctional families, and everyone is terrified of solitude except Thoreau.

Yet when I read these articles on loneliness I am incredulous. The studies conclude that people are anxious and lonely because they don’t get enough likes, because their lives are less exciting than their rivals’ on Facebook, and they don’t look charming enough in filtered selfies.

IIn short, we are a nation in crisis. The lonely ones are so depressed by the lack of likes on social media or by not resembling Taylor Swift or Nicole Kidman that they will end up in the looney bin for as long as their insurance will cover it.  There they will be expected  to sand and paint ceramic animals in crafts (a cheap form of art therapy).

You know what I say:  Turn off your like button!  Turn off your filters!  Get off YouTube immediately!  Don’t even try to look like Taylor Swift!

The odd thing is that the writers of the articles on loneliness never indicate the affirmation of the act of writing, which is surely part of the motivation to post.  Of course we write alone, but it doesn’t feel lonely: it is an affirmation of our flights of fancy, a stimulation or simulation of happiness. It forms an intuitive connection between our hands, our keyboards and our  flow of words. 

And the studies may be biased. How is the control group chosen? We don’t know. An acquaintance once participated in a study by a famous sociologist.  She claims that she  and her friends mischievously lied  to the researchers,  because the questions were so absurd, so obviously based on the assumption that women are wispy and delicate.  The resulting book based on the study was considered profound.  

All I can say is everyone loves clickbait.

Family Connections and the Death of Capitalism:  Fay Weldon’s “Chalcot Crescent”

I read Doris Lessing obsessively when I was young, but I came of age giggling over Fay Weldon’s radical comic novels about crabby, sexy women skirmishing with men and fighting against the patriarchy. Think Sophocles’s Antigone mixed with Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.  

Weldon’s women character are irritable and unpredictable, witty and politically savvy. Her novels  are imbued with Rabelaisian humor, radical feminism, and the rage of the exploited. In the 20th century, she articulated in her fiction the the problems confronted by feminists. 

Weldon, a brilliant, prolific novelist who died in January at age 91, was also a successful TV writer.  She wrote the first episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, and a 1980 five-part Pride and Prejudice series.  And her hilarious novel The life and Loves of a She-Devil was adapted as a successful movie starring Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep. 

Weldon’s style as a novelist is saucy and experimental. It’s as if she’s daring male readers to respond, though there probably were few male readers.  Her characters’ strange, witty observations resonate with women because  they anticipate or articulate our own rebellious, whimsical thoughts .

I recently found Weldon’s  dystopian novel, Chalcot Crescent, published in 2009, sitting unread on my shelf. Set in 2013 after the collapse of capitalism, it is intelligent, funny, a bit scary, and not improbable.

Yet Weldon also reinvents her family within the framework of the dystopian novel. The narrator is her younger sister Frances, who in reality died at birth.  Weldon imagines Frances as an 80-year-old novelist who, after a wild life as a rich, successful writer, keeps  a low profile in her house at Chalcot Crescent. Capitalism is dead, England is ruled by NUG (the National Unity Government), and old women are considered redundant.  The bailiff is literally at the door..

In Weldon’s imagined future, capitalism did not survive the financial crash of 2008. Travel is restricted. The  European countries have become increasingly isolated (Brexit?), with little to import or export.  The UK is under constant surveillance; there are food shortages and rolling power outages.  People are encouraged to stay home as much as possible. Few have cars, and the buses are erratic. Everyone eats government meat loaf, which tastes good but no one wants to think what it is made of.  Frances at one points says to her grandson, Well, you’re not thinking Soylent Green, are you? And yet we readers suspect that it might be something like that.

Yet this is not a gloomy novel.  Like Carolyn See’s apocalyptic Golden Days, there is joy in survival.  And the novel moves back and forth between the present and Frances’s past. Her memories of her life as a young woman are tumultuous but happy. .She climbed the social ladder and became a rich, famous novelist, with lots of money, great clothes, husbands, and children.

But Frances regrets her envy and nastiness to Fay. She stole Fay’s boyfriend and later stole and married Karl, the love of Fay’s life.  After Karl and Frances divorced, she realized that Fay and Karl could have been happy together.  But she doesn’t dwell on it. Now that she’s 80, she has no lovers, though the government encourages old people to have sex because it’s “good” for them.

Looking back over her life, she thinks,

I was a different person then.  I look at that time from afar with a sense of awe and marvel.  I am no longer me: my skin has changed too often, five times and more if you allow ten years for a complete change.

One never knows when there will be a government crack-down. One afternoon Frances’s thirtyish grandson Amos sits beside her on the stairs for hours while they wait for the bailiffs to stop banging on the door. But then he organizes a revolutionary meeting  at her house, and she is astonished that the core revolutionaries are her grandchildren, led by dangerous Henry, a nasty by-blow of her ex-husband Karl.  Henry is the leader, a Puritanical revolutionary who reminds her of Oliver Cromwell.  Frances is old, but she is smart: can she outwit Henry?

This is far from Weldon’s best novel, but it great fun and has a satisfying, surprisingly upbeat ending. I wonder how much Weldon knew about the financial system.  Did we ever recover  from the crash of 2008?  One wonders. In the  “post=Covid” era people stay home more, and the towering office buildings in the city are empty. So Weldon got some of it right, didn’t she?

I love Weldon’s writing, so let me share this comic but despairing quote about the end of good times.

And Polly [her daughter] certainly cannot conceive that we are really living in the end of times, that it’s good=bye to all that, all the goodies we had in the past.  The easy days will not come again: they were a one-off, an abortive mutation in the evolution of civilization, as the peacock’s tail is over the top when it comes to attracting the dowdy pea-hen, merely an over-response.  IF evolution were to start all over,… you’d have to wait forever for the froth and bubble of the hedge funds, or Paris Hilton to step from a plane in a white fur coat….  Face it, the good times are gone.  They will not return.

Did You See Any Celebrities in London?

The most frequently asked questions upon my return from London were:

  • Did you go to an English pub?
  • Did you see the Changing of the Guard?
  • Did you see any celebrities?

Answer to Question No. 1. Je regrette that the answer is No. Technically  I did not visit an English pub. At the Dickens Museum, I may have  seen a jolly illustration  by Phiz of a fat man  drinking ale. The character may have been Mr. Pickwick, but I have not read The Pickwick Papers, so I cannot say for sure.  I do know that it was not Oliver Twist holding up his bowl for more porridge. (“Please, sir, I want some more.”) Technically, an orphanage is not a pub though some may call it a Porridgery.  I did eat fish and chips across the street from what may have been an English pub. 

Answer to Question No. 2.   Je regrette that the answer is No. You must get up early in the morning to see the Changing of the Guard.  I believe the ceremony is at 11 or 11:30 a.m., and I do need my sleep after drinking tea and staying up till the wee hours to finish my book. No, I prefer to skip the ceremony and visit the used bookstores when they open at 11:30 or noon.

Answer to Question No. 3.  Je regrette that the answer is No.  The prime minster, mayor, actors, actresses, writers,  owners of famous restaurants, musicians, intellectuals, and  columnists were all at the English Pub.  I nearly met a quasi-celebrity when I admired the “puffy coats” in a painting and was told the artist was “hanging around somewhere.” He was probably at the English Pub. The only people who looked like celebrities were shopping at Daunt Books.  Well, Mayfair is very glam, and what is more glam than glam readers? Perhaps they were on the way to the English pub? 

 Maybe next time!

How The Internet Got Stupid:  The Embarrassment of Readalongs & Making Poor Bookish Choices

A traditional book club

Let’s hear it for Miranda Mills, vlogger, blogger, freelance writer, editor, and avid reader. Miranda and her mum, Donna, host the  monthly Comfort Book Club at Miranda’s vlog.  They have discussed such charming books as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Sense and Sensibility, and Elizabeth von Arnim’s  Father. Their November pick is Gavin Plumley’s A Home for All Seasons. Of course their fans read along and leave comments and phone messages. And Miranda and Donna play some of the phone messages at the book club meeting and respond to them. 

What’s so unusual about this, you ask.  Well, it is a traditional book club, focusing on one book at a time, in a frantic world of splintered attention.  

The traditional book club isn’t enough for internet-frazzled souls who socialize desperately online (and I have done the same) and can barely keep up with Twitter, Discord, Instagram, and possibly Tik-Tok. It is easy to get caught up in a never-ending cycle of what I call “reading for other people.” The beloved, bossy leaders of blog readalongs go in for what I can only call an embarrassment of repetition.

AND NOW I SHALL ADOPT MY BORED VOICE. God, I dread the blog readalongs, whether they be 20 Books of Summer, Jane in July, Victober (love the name, though),  or even (gasp) Women in Translation.  Some excellent bloggers are among the organizers, but I avoid the readalong posts. In November, the main events are Novellas in November and Non-fiction November. 

The lead bloggers urge, remind, slave-drive, and brainwash their followers into repeating the same task year after year. God help the bloggers and vloggers who take this literally. Last year, one vlogger looked about to cry as he talked about nonfiction “burn=out.”  I am sometimes exasperated by the failure to differentiate novellas from novels. No, The Great Gatsby IS NOT a novella!

It would be lovely to have a Dystopia in December event.  After all, Christmas comes only once a year.


There are moments when I wonder:  Why did I buy this book?  On a recent trip I was so ecstatic in all the bookstores that I could have spent all my time shopping.   I bought fewer books than usual, but I seem to have made worse choices. The good news: they all fit in my suitcase.

In the hotel room I started A. A. Milne’s adult novel, Mr. Pim, which I bought for the cover.. It was less well-written than I’d hoped, and not quite as funny as I’d expected, so I put it aside. It might do for the plane.

Anyway, I wasn’t a Milne fan, so what did I expect? I may be the only reader who in childhood disliked Milne’s Winnie-the Pooh.  Even at four, I felt too sophisticated for it. My dad got it out of the library, ignoring my wishes for The Bobbsey Twins or The Secret Garden.  Let me translate my four-year-old thoughts as he read the first chapter: “Really? This is what you like? Kanga and Roo are cute.” Then my mind wandered, and like the will o’ the wisp I was, I glided away while he sat reading to himself.

On the plane, I read 94 pages of Mr. Pim, which wasn’t easy,(1) because two young Czech? Hungarian? Irish? Appalachian? men talked loudly for seven hours in the seat behind me, and (2) a hapless, haunted-looking couple trying in vain to soothe a screaming baby for seven hours. I managed to read part of Ludwig Bemelmans’   To The One I Love the Best, a charming, comical memoir of Bemelmans’ friendship with Elsie de Wolfen, an eccentric decorator, in Los Angeles in the 1930s.

Anna Biller’s Bluebead’s Castle was also a mistake, but who am I to argue with the TLS review?  I loved the cover and thought it might be a literary excuse to read a Gothic novel. Maybe later.

I only bought nine or ten books, all of which fit in my suitcase. 

So it goes…

A Brief History of Communication:  Chat, Reading Aloud & Reading Silently

At the classical library.

Women have always known the value of chat. They know the value of chat as a primary means of communication. Their husbands may grunt over football and yell at the TV,  but women prefer to talk and exchange information.  Think of Martha Mitchell and the problems she unleashed when she ratted out her dishonest husband during Watergate.. She was a bit of a chatty heroine,  but I view her with affection.

My mother was chatty and prodigiously well-informed.   She  chatted for hours on the phone and then made a point of going to stores so so she could chat with sales clerks or cashiers.   And reading aloud to her children was a form of chat: we may not have been good conversationalists, but we loved our little Golden Books, fairy tales, and Dr. Seuss books.

Even a trip to Walgreen’s with my mother took an hour while we considered buying identical university t-shirts (“Go, team!”) and searched for a special brand of support hose she liked.  And then we chatted to the pharmacist about her medication, until we could rattle off all the side effects, by which time no sane person would dream of taking those pills, though my mother took her chances and lived to be very old.

In the ancient world, my mother would have had plenty of opportunities to chat: she might have haggled over greens at the market, dithered over the Saturnalia gifts,. or complained about potions she bought from quack herbalists.

There were certainly diversions in the ancient world:  holidays, festivals, shops, the games, feasts, and fine wine. Sadly, there was little reading except among the upper classes, and a few of us women might have started a feminist movement in order to read the books.  In W. V. Harris’s book, Ancient Literacy, he calculated that the maximum literacy rate was 20-30% – and that was in Hellenistic cities.

The actual method of reading in ancient Greek and Rome might strike one as anomalous.There was no silent reading till the Middle Ages, writes  Irene Vallejo in her superb book, Papyrus:  The Invention of Books in the Ancient World.  In ancient Greece and Rome, readers spoke the words out loud as they read them, whether they were reading to themselves or others.  And writers spoke the words aloud as they wrote.

How did ancient writers manage?  Cicero dictated to  his secretary, Tiro. And he had a chance to practice his oration as it was transcribed.

 I cannot imagine the impulsive Catullus reading aloud as he scribbled his charming poems to Lesbia, even though he based some of them on Sappho’s (in one case, almost word for word.) More likely he’d be mussing his hair up, making faces in the mirror, crossing out lines with a stylus, calling for pocula of wine, and damning Lesbia’s infidelity.  I do love Catullus.

The intellectual Virgil would have weighed his words with pietas (honoring his duties to the gods, his country, and his family) and with allusions to Homer’s epics .  Intellectual Virgil blended history, myth, nationalism, and religion into his Roman epic, the Aeneid, based on Homer’s  Iliad and Odyssey. (T. S. Eliot wrote an essay, “What Is a Classic?”, claiming that the Aeneid is the best poem in not only Latin but in any language.) As for wild Ovid, author of Metamorphoses and Amores, he broke so many rules that I can only imagine he was the first rebellious silent reader.

I am generally a silent reader, but my husband and I have rediscovered the joys of reading aloud. We are currently reading Conrad’s Victory. If you’re interested, you can start your own group or check out Sharing Reading groups online and Reading Aloud groups at public libraries. Or simply pair up with a friend: you can read a play and change the voices to amuse yourselves.

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