Remember back in August when I posted a list anticipating the 7 books I was reading for literature class this year? A few of you wanted to know what I thought of them once I was done. Well, I took my literature final yesterday, so I’m officially done with this year’s literature class, and I can tell you about all the books I read this year! I’ll talk about both the content of the books and the edition/ translation I read.
Today I’ll review the books I read first semester, mostly classical literature. Just so you know, there were a few curriculum changes between the time of my last article and now, so the two lists won’t match up exactly. Also, I won’t be ranking these books, because I’m definitely not qualified to give them a numerical grade.
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
I’d already read this when I wrote my last post, and I said that it was “life-changing.” I’ll elaborate on that a bit, so if you’re not interested in Christian theology, you can skip to the next book.
What I meant in my previous post was that The Great Divorce changed the way I looked at myself and the Christian life. Before this book (and indeed, this year), I hadn’t thought about aligning my will with God’s. I pretty much thought that when you accepted Christ, you were done. This year, I’ve begun to understand that sanctification is a much more deep and beautiful process than that, that it’s about choosing God over yourself in every moment, continually asking for forgiveness for the past and grace for the present. The Great Divorce started me down that path, I guess, and I’m very grateful for it. I love C.S. Lewis, and if you’re at all interested in Christianity, The Great Divorce is well worth a read.
I got a used copy of the book for pretty cheap online, and I think it might be a first edition, so that’s fun!
The Iliad by Homer, trans. Robert Fagles
I read The Iliad back in September, and it’s SO long, so I don’t remember too much about it. I did enjoy it, I remember; the story and characters themselves are engrossing. It also provided a helpful framework for understanding Greek values when reading Plato, and Achilles’ grappling with questions of mortality resonated with me.
THE EDITION / TRANSLATION
The edition I used (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) was great, with extensive notes, a helpful glossary, and plenty of room for marginalia. Fagles’ translation is powerful and energetic, and I loved the poetry itself:
“…hurling down to the house of death so many sturdy souls,
great fighter’s souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds.” (1.3-5)
If you’re inclined to read the Iliad, I’d definitely recommend this translation and edition!
The Aeneid by Virgil, trans. Robert Fagles
I liked the Aeneid. The story didn’t pull me in as much as the Iliad, but this book is over 2000 years old, so my personal experience with it doesn’t matter much. I found it fascinating the way Virgil echoes Homer in so many ways, but with a subtle layer of questions under the poetry. My class looked at the ways Virgil undermines the rigidity of fate seen in the Iliad and hints at his doubts about Augustus’ leadership. As you probably know, I love connecting literature to philosophical and historical questions, so I loved sifting through all those cool themes!
THE EDITION / TRANSLATION
The translation is breathtaking as well. I was impressed by the complete change in tone Fagles achieves between the Iliad and Aeneid–the former is like earth, while the latter is like marble. I am a very poor Latin scholar and haven’t taken Latin for years, but as far as I can tell, Fagles renders the Latin both truthfully and artfully:
“Others, I have no doubt,
will forge the bronze to breathe with suppler lines,
draw from the block of marble features quick with life…” (6.976-8)
I used the same edition for the Aeneid as the Iliad, so enough said there.
So. Much. Plato.
This was one of those curriculum changes I talked about. Instead of reading the Oresteia, we read Symposium and Phaedrus. (I take that back–we read the trial scene from the Eumenides, which made me want to read the rest of the plays!) Also, in one of my other classes, we’d just finished reading Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito. So yeah, five Plato dialogues back-to-back, no Greek plays. Bummer.
I do like Plato, but five in a row was a bit much for me. My favorites were Apology and Symposium, but Phaedrus was also helpful for understanding later neo-Platonist stuff we talked about during the Confessions. It wasn’t easy to read these, but I’m glad I did, because Plato is so foundational to Western thought, and you need to understand the base if you’re going to understand what’s built on top.
THE TRANSLATION / EDITION
I relied on sketchy and probably illegal photocopies from my teacher for Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito. But for Symposium and Phaedrus, I had a copy from Dover Thrift Editions. That was a huge mistake. The translation is archaic and indecipherable, there’s no room to write in the margins, and there are no paragraph breaks. Plato’s already hard enough for me to read, but that book rendered it impossible! Fortunately, I had a copy of the complete works of Plato at my house that I could fall back on. If you want to read Plato, do NOT use Dover Thrift Editions. It’s cheap, but you get what you pay for.
So that’s what I read for the first semester! Next time, I’ll be back with my thoughts on Confessions, Purgatory, Canterbury Tales, and Hamlet.
And now I want to hear from you! Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them? Let me know in comments!