Note: This is another republication from Thermidor, where it first appeared on March 20, 2018.
“The classics have more and more become a baton exclusively for the cudgelling of schoolboys, and less and less a diversion for the mature.” Ezra Pound’s observation, from a 1920 essay on translations of Homer, may have been true at the time but has, in the following decades, become somewhat optimistic. Often, schoolboys aren’t really taught the classics at all, but insofar as they are, “cudgelling” is still about right. I can’t completely blame those reluctant to read old books, since the very sight of anything from the Odyssey to The Scarlet Letter is apt to bring back memories of chapter quizzes and book reports due by next Friday.
Even if we get past the cudgelling, though, Pound’s reference to the classics as a “diversion” may surprise some readers. Aren’t they supposed to improve our moral character, erudition, cultural literacy, and those sorts of high-minded things? Well, sure, they can do that. However, we’re unlikely to get any of those benefits if reading is too much of a chore, and it’s worth remembering that literature is written, first and foremost, to be enjoyed. Shakespeare, it’s often pointed out, wrote for a popular audience. We may also note that in the Poetics, despite the dry literary analysis, Aristotle clearly enjoys the pleasure and spectacle of poetry and drama, and in Timber, or Discoveries, Ben Jonson says that poetry, among other things, “delights our age,” “entertains us at home,” and “shares in our country recesses, and recreations.”
This is why, though literature has always been a primary hobby for me and one that I’m eager to share, I don’t insist on others delving into it as much as I have. One should have an interest in the arts, but if that’s music, painting, or something else, that’s fine. The goal is to have something, almost anything, better than blockbuster movies, top 40 radio, and other components of mass culture to spend one’s time on. Even non-artistic hobbies, like fishing or target shooting, will work for this purpose. Also, if you do choose to pursue literature, I’d encourage you to focus on an area of particular interest to you. Do you remember liking, say, Poe’s short stories in school? Then start by seeking out other Gothic or Nineteenth Century authors. Do you have a fondness for the Middle Ages? Go check out the many Arthurian romances, then, or a volume of Boccaccio.
Now, with all that said, there are a few authors who every educated person should have a basic familiarity with. These writers are also good starting points if you want to take the study of literature seriously, or if you’re just not sure where else to begin. Exactly which authors would go on that list is debatable, but people like Ovid, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare will be near-universal choices. Another would be Homer, and he’s the one I’ll focus on here, and specifically the Iliad.