On Reading (and Writing) for Pleasure

Note: this is a guest post and possible first of many from the amazing Deborah Beck.

“Whenever I hear a man discoursing on virtue, or on some other form of wisdom, who is a true man and worthy of the words he says, I am hugely delighted, admiring at the same time both the speaker and how the things being said are fitting and harmonious with each other.”

ὅταν μὲν γὰρ ἀκούω ἀνδρὸς περὶ ἀρετῆς διαλεγομένου ἢ περί τινος σοφίας ὡς ἀληθῶς ὄντος ἀνδρὸς καὶ ἀξίου τῶν λόγων ὧν λέγει, χαίρω ὑπερφυῶς, θεώμενος ἅμα τόν τε λέγοντα καὶ τὰ λεγόμενα ὅτι πρέποντα ἀλλήλοις καὶ ἁρμόττοντά ἐστι.

 Plato Laches 188c

Several years ago, I taught an advanced undergraduate Greek class on Homer’s Odyssey.  Many of my students were vociferously indignant about the poor quality, as writing, of much of the scholarship that I asked them to read. I was unable to disagree with them, as I often feel much the same way. I suspect most professional Classicists do, whether or not they are willing to admit it. Reading Sophocles, or Livy, or Galen, or Ovid, is usually more fun than reading our colleagues’ views on these authors. The rare exceptions to the generally disappointing quality of academic writing as prose can be easily identified by the lively enthusiasm with which a book reviewer comments on the writing style of a new publication.

The summation of the BMCR review of Mimetic Contagion, by the late Robert Germany (Oxford 2016), is the exception that proves the rule: “This impeccably produced book is unpretentiously erudite; as the saying goes, much more than the sum of its (very many, ancient and modern) parts, impressively documented and arranged: literary-philological analysis and performance criticism, art-historical and anthropological inquiry, sociocultural and intellectual history. Germany regularly deploys critical theory pedagogically judiciously, painlessly introducing uninitiated readers to Benjamin, Foucault, Frazer, Gell, and Irigaray, to name some. Ultimately, Germany’s sophisticated and dense analysis, masterfully delivered in clear, serene prose is a pleasure to read.”

How often do we encounter such praise of academic writing? Not often at all. My students’ annoyance about this was a wake-up call. Why, I wondered, do we put up with so much academic writing that is so lackluster as English prose? And what can be done about it?

Sententiae Antiquae is one answer. It has tens of thousands of enthusiastic readers in large part because it helps us to explore learned matters, and complex and challenging topics, by writing about them with engaging clarity and vigor. A post on Sententiae Antiquae always sounds like a real person speaking. This is a key reason that SA has been so successful in fostering substantive conversations about difficult issues in both Classical literature and current affairs. The writing styles of SA’s contributors put out a welcome mat for anyone interested in the subject under discussion. In fact, SA models for readers that writing style is important, because writing style makes an idea both more enjoyable and more persuasive to its audiences.

An ongoing complaint about the academy in recent decades, and about the Humanities in particular, is that our scholarship has become so specialized that no one outside of a small group of experts can understand it. Specialization in and of itself, in my view, is not the main problem. This way of framing the issue creates a false dichotomy between erudition and accessibility. It allows scholars to wiggle out of the problem by making the issue one of too little knowledge on the part of someone else, instead of taking responsibility for asking necessary questions about what “erudition” should look like. At a time when many Classicists are eager for ways to bring more people into our field, a meaningful yardstick for measuring erudition is the ability to create conversations about specialized ideas in which both the learned and the not-as-learned can participate with enjoyment.

This does not mean that scholarly writing needs to be “dumbed down” in order to be appealing to a wider audience. Nor am I suggesting that everyone now writing scholarly monographs for Oxford and Cambridge should instead write general interest books. My beef is not with scholarly writing and argument per se, but with the default understanding of what constitutes good scholarly writing. In my view, the clotted and wearisome “Academic-ese” writing style that we too often equate with erudition can also be seen as laziness. It’s hard to present a scholarly argument in a clear and straightforward way that can be understood by anyone familiar with the ancient evidence. It’s much easier to write the kind of “insider baseball” footnotes that remind knowledgeable readers of scholarship they have already read, while leaving everyone else frustrated and confused. It’s easier to dismiss calls for scholarship that any devoted reader of Homer can enjoy than it is to try to write such scholarship. But this is something that scholars should be thinking about, because “more accessible scholarly writing” is one answer to the question, “how can we make our field more welcoming to more different kinds of people?”

Learning to write in a more user-friendly way is an ongoing project. Whenever I am working on a new publication, I now ask myself whether those former students of mine would be aggrieved if they were asked to read my piece. If the answer is yes, I’ve done it wrong and I should try again. If you’re not sure if you’re one of Those Writers, who are writing in Academic-ese rather than English, ask yourself some questions. How many multisyllabic Latinate abstractions have you used? Can you read one of your paragraphs aloud without stumbling or running out of breath? How many subordinate clauses does your typical sentence have? Ask a non-teacher to read your latest paper, and invite them to be brutally honest with you about the style. Then listen carefully to their answer. My students have made me a better writer, in ways that all of us would do well to think about.

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Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century. Cow reading (@BLMedieval, Egerton 3277)

Going Hunting? Don’t Forget Your Notebooks

Pliny, Letters To Cornelius Tacitus 6

“You will laugh—and it is right to laugh. I, that friend of yours, have gotten three boars and they’re really great ones too. “That guy?” You ask. Yes, this guy, and I did it without taking a break from my rest and relaxation. I was just sitting by the hunting nets and next to me weren’t spear or lance but my pen and notes because I was thinking about something and was trying to write a bit, supposing that even if I returned with empty hands I would still have full notebooks.

There’s no reason to scoff at this kind of research—for it is a wonder how the mind is inspired by the agitation and movement of the body. For solitude somewhere in the woods and the silence needed for hunting bring many opportunities for thought. So, whenever you are hunting next, take me as an authority and bring your notebooks with your picnic basket and your flask. You will discover that Minerva wanders the hills no less than Diana does.”

Ridebis, et licet rideas. Ego, ille quem nosti, apros tres et quidem pulcherrimos cepi. “Ipse?” inquis. Ipse; non tamen ut omnino ab inertia mea et quiete discederem. Ad retia sedebam; erat in proximo non venabulum aut lancea, sed stilus et pugillares; meditabar aliquid enotabamque, ut si manus vacuas, plenas tamen ceras reportarem. Non est quod contemnas hoc studendi genus; mirum est ut animus agitatione motuque corporis excitetur; iam undique silvae et solitudo ipsumque illud silentium quod venationi datur, magna cogitationis incitamenta sunt. Proinde cum venabere, licebit auctore me ut panarium et lagunculam sic etiam pugillares feras: experieris non Dianam magis montibus quam Minervam inerrare. Vale.

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I Worked Hard on This! Aelian’s Preface.

Aelian, History of Animals Prologue

“How much toil others have contributed on these topics, I know well. But after I collected as many sources as possible and communicated them in understandable language, I am convinced that I have made a contribution with is not unworthy of this toil. So, if they seem useful to anyone, may they enjoy them.

To anyone to whom they may seem unprofitable, well, give them to your father to keep warm and work over. For all things are not fine to all people, nor do they seem worthy of enthusiasm to all people the same. Even though in this work I follow many wise authors before me, do not let the mere fact of time be a reason for depriving me of praise if I also have prepared something learned, worthy of praise thanks both to its deeper research and its language.”

 ὡς μὲν οὖν καὶ ἑτέροις ὑπὲρ τούτων ἐσπούδασται, καλῶς οἶδα · ἐγὼ δὲ [ἐμαυτῷ] ταῦτα ὅσα οἷόν τε ἦν ἀθροίσας καὶ περιβαλὼν αὐτοῖς τὴν συνήθη λέξιν, κειμήλιον οὐκ ἀσπούδαστον ἐκπονῆσαι πεπίστευκα. εἰ δέ τῳ καὶ ἄλλῳ φανεῖται ταῦτα λυσιτελῆ, χρήσθω αὐτοῖς· ὅτῳ δὲ οὐ φανεῖται, ἐάτω τῷ πατρὶ θάλπειν τε καὶ περιέπειν · οὐ γὰρ πάντα πᾶσι καλά, οὐδὲ ἄξια δοκεῖ σπουδάσαι πᾶσι πάντα. εἰ δὲ ἐπὶ πολλοῖς τοῖς πρώτοις καὶ σοφοῖς γεγόναμεν, μὴ ἔστω ζημίωμα ἐς ἔπαινον ἡ τοῦ χρόνου λῆξις, εἴ τι καὶ αὐτοὶ σπουδῆς ἄξιον μάθημα παρεχοίμεθα καὶ τῇ εὑρέσει τῇ περιττοτέρᾳ καὶ τῇ φωνῇ.

 British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 35r

Fronto’s Writing Advice to Aurelius: One Thought Should Follow Through to the Next

Fronto Laudes Fumi et Pulveris [Ambr 249 Caesari suo Fronto. [139 a.d.]]

“Many of my readers may perhaps hate my subject from the title because it is impossible for anything serious to be made of smoke and dust. But you, thanks to your outstanding intelligence, will judge whether these words are wasted or put well.

The subject does, however, seem to ask for a few things to be written about the logic of its composition, since nothing written of this kind of thing noble enough in the Roman tongue exists except for what poets touch in comedies or farces. Anyone who tests himself at writing of this kind will select a mass of ideas and put them together closely, joining them cleverly, but without including many useless and doubled words and then make sure to end each sentence with clarity and skill.

In legal speeches, however, it goes differently because we often pay special attention to sentences ending harshly and artlessly. In this matter, we must labor differently so that nothing is left rude and out of place, instead making sure that everything is interconnected as in a robe with clear borders and ornate edges. Finally, just as the final verses in epigrams should have some kind of shine to them, a sentence should be ended with some kind of a clasp or brooch.

Pleasing the audience, however, should pursued among the first goals. For this kind of address is not composed for defense in a capital trial nor to advocate for the passing of a law, nor to exhort an army, nor to enrage a mass of people, but for delights and pleasure. Nevertheless, we must speeches we do about serious and wonderful things—the small matters must be compared and equaled to great ones. And, finally, the greatest virtue in this kind of speech is the conceit of seriousness. Stories of the gods or heroes should be interwoven where they fit. At he same time, lines of poetry which pertain applicable proverbs, and even clever fictions, as long as the fiction is added by some kind of clever argument.

The chief challenge, then, is to order the materials so that their presentation has a logical connection. This is what Plato faults Lysias for in the Phaedrus, that he has combined his thoughts so carelessly that the first one could be exchanged with the last without any kind of loss. We can only escape this danger if we organize our thoughts in categories so that we do not mix them in an indiscriminate and disordered way like those mixed dishes, but instead arrange it so that the preceding idea reaches into the next one and then shares its boundary, where the second thought begins where the first one has ended, and a sequence emerges in this way, so that we seem to step rather than jump along our way.”

Plerique legentium forsan rem de titulo contemnant, nihil <enim> serium , potuisse fieri de fumo et pulvere: tu pro tuo excellenti ingenio profecto existimabis lusa sit opera4ista an locata. 2. Sed res poscere videtur de ratione scribendi pauca praefari, quod nullum huiuscemodi scriptum Romana lingua extat satis nobile, nisi quod poetae in comoediis vel atellanis adtigerunt. Qui se eiusmodi rebus scribendis exercebit, crebras sententias conquiret, easque dense conlocabit et subtiliter coniunget, Ambr. neque verba multa geminata supervacanea | in-ferciet; tum omnem sententiam breviter et scite concludet. Aliter in orationibus iudiciariis, ubi sedulo curamus ut pleraeque sententiae durius interdum et incautius1finiantur. Sed contra istic laborandum est, ne quid inconcinnum et hiulcum relinquatur, quin omnia ut in tenui veste oris detexta et revimentis sint cincta. Postremo, ut novissimos in epigrammatis versus habere oportet aliquid luminis, sententia clavo aliquo vel fibula terminanda est.

In primis autem sectanda est suavitas. Namque hoc genus orationis non capitis defendendi nec suadendae legis nec exercitus hortandi nec inflammandae contionis scribitur, sed facetiarum et voluptatis.Ubique vero ut de re ampla et magnifica loquendum, parvaeque res magnis adsimilandae comparandaeque. Summa denique in hoc genere orationis virtus est adseveratio. Fabulae deum vel heroum tempestive inserendae; item versus congruenteset proverbia accommodata et non inficete conficta mendacia, dum id mendacium argumento aliquo lepido iuvetur.

Ambr 247 4. Cum primis autem difficile est argumenta ita disponere ut sit ordo eorum rite connexus. Quod Ambr.ille | Plato Lysiam culpat in Phaedro, sententiarum ordinem ab eo ita temere permixtum, ut sine ullo detrimento prima in novissimum locum transferantur, et novissima in primum, eam culpam ita devitabimus, si divisa generatim argumenta nectemus, non sparsa nec sine discrimine aggerata, ut ea quae per saturam feruntur, sed ut praecedens sententia in sequentem laciniam aliquam porrigat et oram praetendat; ubi prior sit finita sententia, inde ut sequens ordiatur; ita enim transgredi potius videmur quam transilire.

From Roman de la Rose

Weekend Plans with Pliny

Pliny to his Friend Calpurnius Macer, (Letter 18)

“I’m doing well because you are! You have your wife, and you have your son. You enjoy the sea, the streams, the forest, the fields and your most charming home. I cannot doubt that it must be truly charming when it’s the place where a man stays who was already lucky before he became the luckiest!

I am hunting and studying in Tuscany, either taking turns between them or trying them at the same time. I am not able right now to tell you whether it is more difficult to catch something or write about it. Be well!”

C. Plinius Calpurnio Macro Suo S.
1Bene est mihi quia tibi bene est. Habes uxorem tecum, habes filium; frueris mari fontibus viridibus agro villa amoenissima. Neque enim dubito esse amoenissimam, in qua se composuerat homo felicior, 2ante quam felicissimus fieret. Ego in Tuscis et venor et studeo, quae interdum alternis, interdum simul facio; nec tamen adhuc possum pronuntiare, utrum sit difficilius capere aliquid an scribere. Vale.

Roman mosaic of men surrounding deer with nets
Hunting with Nets – Piazza Armerina, Sicily (ca. 300 AD)

What Audience Are You Writing For? Cicero on the Middle-Ground

In light of a recent article on Slate criticizing the register of Academic writing, here is a reminder that nihil sub sole novum [est? immo, umquam erit]

[Marcus Varro is the speaker in this excerpt]

Cicero, Academica 1.4

“Because I recognized that philosophy had been most expertly explored in the Greek language, I believed that anyone from Rome who was inclined toward the subject would prefer to read it in Greek, if they were educated in Greek doctrines. If they shuddered at Greek arts and learning, they would not be interested in those very matters which could not be understood without Greek. So, I did not want to write what the unlearned could not understand or what the learned would not care to.”

Nam cum philosophiam viderem diligentissime Graecis litteris explicatam, existimavi si qui de nostris eius studio tenerentur, si essent Graecis doctrinis eruditi, Graeca potius quam nostra lecturos; sin a Graecorum artibus et disciplinis abhorrerent, ne haec quidem curaturos quae sine eruditione Graeca intellegi non possunt; itaque ea nolui scribere quae nec indocti intellegere possent nec docti legere curarent.

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Missing Deadlines Because of Chronic Illness

Fronto to Praeciilius Pompeianus          (Ambr. 312, following 313)

“You will hear from my, Pompeianus, the truth of how the matter is and I would hope that you would believe that I am speaking the truth. Nearly last year I took that oration For the Bithynians into my hand and I started to correct it. I also promised you some things concerning that oration when I was at Rome then. And, if my memory serves me correctly, when we were having a conversation about certain sections of the speech, I said and was somewhat proud that I had carefully enough examined in that speech which hinged on the crime of contract killing.

But in the meantime a bout of neuritis overcame me pretty strongly and it has remained longer and more burdensome than is typical. When my limbs are coursing with pain, I am incapable of giving any attention to things that must be written or read. I have not dared up to now to ever ask this much of myself. When those wondrous beasts, philosophers, tell us that the wise man, even if he were locked in the bull of Phalaris, would be no less blessed, I could believe it more easily that we would be a little bit happier while cooking in the brass to contemplate some introduction or write some letters.”

Fronto Praecilio Pompeiano salutem.

Verum ex me, mi Pompeiane, uti res est,  audies; velimque te mihi verum | dicenti fidem habere. Orationem istam Pro Bithynisante annum fere in manus sumpseram et corrigere institueram. Tibi etiam Romae tunc agenti nonnihil de ista oratione promiseram. Et quidem, si recte memini, quom sermo inter nos de partitionibus orationum ortus esset, dixeram et prae me tuleram, satis me diligenter in ista oratione coniecturam, quae in crimine mandatae caedis verteretur, divisisse argumentis ac refutasse. Interea nervorum dolor solito vehementior me invasit, et diutius ac molestius solito remoratus est. Nec possum ego membris cruciantibus operam ullam litteris scribendis legendisque impendere; nec umquam istuc a me postulare ausus sum. Philosophis etiam mirificis hominibus dicentibus, sapientem virum etiam in Phalaridis tauro inclusum beatum nihilominus fore, facilius crediderim beatum eum fore quam posse tantisper amburenti in aheno prohoemium meditari aut epigrammata scribere.

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