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Dec 22 2011

The Joye of Ancient Literature

Literati observing me as a youngster might have despaired. I had no real interest in musty old tomes. For a long time, my tastes ran to mysteries and Westerns. Then I became addicted to fantasy and science fiction. I still adore all that stuff, and I believe some of the best fiction ever written is genre. Michael Hann and his ilk would faint at the idea. These, mind you, are the very same people who wouldn’t be ashamed to see clutching Homer in public – a patina of age, apparently, puts a suitable shine on monsters, demigods and other tropes of fantasy.

The poor buggers will need a fainting couch when I tell them it’s a Western writer who helped get me hooked on ancient literature. But it’s true. Louis L’Amour wrote The Walking Drum, which brought some very old texts to vivid life. I’ve sung that book’s praises more than once, and I’ll sing them again: it was one of the best books I’ve ever read.

While the Michael Hanns of the world clutch their Trollope and Proust, I’ll turn to my fantasists, thanks ever so much. Guy Gavriel Kay. Susanna Clarke. That’s all I’m saying. Oh, and these folks, too, among about a billion others. I’ll put the best SF authors in a ring with your literary greats any day, and I know who I’m putting my cold hard cash on.

So yes, I loves me my modern SF, and quite a lot of genre (excepting most romance, although there was that one book by Catherine Coulter that I picked up and read because the blurb contained this aside: “What is a marten, you ask? A marten is a sable; a sable is a weasel. What is a weasel, you ask. See marten.” And I figured anything that snarky couldn’t be half bad, and it actually wasn’t). But there are times when I love to immerse myself in ancient literature.

I love snark, and while schools try to carefully conceal the fact, ancient authors could be quite snarky. Lucian made a career on snark. I’m reading a collection of his works just now and adoring every minute, even the footnotes necessary to understand the in jokes. And for a little while, now, I’m walking alongside him, sniggering at the philosophers and socially pretentious, marveling at his command of language. Well, his and the translator’s – I can’t speak much ancient Greek.

Sappho? Oh, my darlings, I am such a sucker for Sappho. Go read A.S. Kline’s translation of this poem. Then sample the rest of his site – the words there will intoxicate you. I’ve talked about Sappho and her friend Alcaeus before. Rhapsodized, really. I love them both dearly. And dear Father Locks, Abu Nuwais, who probably couldn’t be taught in school without some stern censorship, because heaven forfend we should tell the kiddies it’s okay to get all lyrical about drinking and sexuality – even homosexuality.

I love words that seem like they couldn’t have been written by a mortal, deep words, powerful words, such language! But I also love words that use all of those elegant and graceful stylistic tools to speak of the human condition. Not the noble, not the elevated, but the ordinary things, the things we’ve been taught to avert our eyes from. Clay feet are nicely set off when framed in gold, aren’t they just? And the ancients, they knew how to do that. So do the moderns, truth be told, but there’s just something about reading the words of writers thousands of years dead and seeing ordinary people. You could lift some of them out of their context and set them down right here. Once they got over the culture shock and learned how to navigate our technology, you’d have a full population of pompous asses and internet trolls and worrisome children and interfering parents. You’d have your truly good, situationally good, and not really good at all. You’d have your quacks and charlatans. You’d have your rednecks and your metrosexuals. You’d have people who understood “You’re So Vain,” and people who’d probably think that song was about them.

That was the thing I didn’t get through much of high school. Literature is taught as this great and solemn thing. It’s approached with the white gloves and reverence. It seems to have no relation to a modern life. Now, I’m a book nerd. I didn’t have to be told to like Shakespeare, but it sure as shit helped the addiction along when Mr. Vail, our British and Senior English teacher, took me aside to show me some educational contraband. If you read that post, you’ll also discover Mrs. Putman, who got a whole bunch of hormonal teenagers hooked on French literature that year. It wasn’t required reading, but the local bookstore ran out of copies of Les Miserables. The unabridged edition, mind you.

You know why we loved that stuff? Because the humanity hadn’t been stripped from it. It hadn’t been sanitized. And it wasn’t presented as something we should read because it was Great Literature, but because it was all about well-written stories.

That’s what’s been so wonderful about getting out of school. I’m not reading things considered inoffensive to Good Taste, but stuff that survived because people enjoyed reading it. Uncensored. Complete, whole and gorgeous, warts, double entendre, fart jokes and all.

What really amuses me about people with literary pretensions is that they so often laud Shakespeare, who wrote for the unwashed masses. I wonder just how much of the literature we venerate today was yesterday’s popular entertainment?

It’s certainly entertaining to me now. And there’s nothing quite like going back to the old works. Let me tell you, if you haven’t touched an ancient writer since being forced to pick one up in high school, or found yourself limited to only the venerable old farts sanctioned by the people in charge of providing as inoffensive an education as possible, you’ve missed out.

Wash the stodgy old dust of neutered texts out of your mouth. Get your Xenophon on. Go hang out in the clouds with Aristophanes. And tell us about the ancient delights you’ve discovered.

 

4 comments

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  1. 1
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Good plan. I haven’t read anything ancient and fun in a while. This time, it isn’t going to be the Timaeus.

  2. 2
    Kate from Iowa

    *grin* I love my Greek plays…and frequently read them to myself aloud. The best thing a teacher ever told me (and keep in mind, she was not my English/Lit teacher) was “don’t read that book for your teacher or your class, read it for the people it’s about.” That book was the Brothers Karamazov amd all of its fairly loaded digressions. I never looked at “classic” literature the same. Mostly because after that, I was actually able to enjoy it.

  3. 3
    movablebooklady

    Excellent post! I’ve always thought L’Amour had a great sense of place; he puts you there. Literary snobbism is annoying — I always had trouble in college Eng. Lit. because they always wanted me to read the story for the symbolism or the metaphor or the analogy or the third layer of significance, and I wanted to read for the story. So I became a bookseller so I could read anything and everything for the story.

  4. 4
    Paul Sunstone

    I think you’re one of the best stylists that I’ve come across on the net, Dana. I sometimes catch myself pining away, wishing I could write as well as you.

    By the way, I kept The Walking Drum at my bedside for years, so I think I might understand your enthusiasm for it.

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