A New Book and its Many ‘Authors’

Pliny the Younger, Letters 1.2

“Clearly, something must be published – ah, it would be best if I could just publish what I have already finished! (You may hear in this the wish of laziness)”

Est enim plane aliquid edendum — atque utinam hoc potissimum quod paratum est! Audis desidiae votum

Amid all the uncertainty and chaos of current events, it seems strange to celebrate something like the paper publication of a book, but I did want to write a little bit about Homer’s Thebes, a book I wrote with Elton Barker, on the occasion of its official print publication date.

Homer's Thebes_LI

The book was born digitally in December and Elton and I have already written about the long history of its writing for the SCS blog. Books are strange creations: some people are tortured by them, some handle them with the loving care due infants. Many fall somewhere in between. I have a deep affection for this book because of how much time we spent working on it, because we finally got it done, and because it has, in the introduction, the most fully worked-out presentation of how Elton and I conceive of Homeric poetry as functioning in the world.

Michael Apostol 4.95

“My book is drunk: [a proverb] applied to those who ruin certain works; or to philologists.”

Βιβλίον τοὐμὸν μέθυ: πρὸς τοὺς διαφθείροντάς τινα ἔργα· ἢ ἐπὶ τῶν φιλολόγων

Our view of the aesthetics and poetics of early Greek poetry draws on much as what we know about orality and performance culture in the ancient world as it does on post-modern literary theory. One of the things I personally find frustrating about continuing conversations about authorship in Classical Studies is the tireless emphasis we put on individual geniuses to the detriment of the people who made their work possible.

This is both about the actual labor of the writing context and the intellectual frameworks that make ideas possible. People don’t write alone: they write while others cook, clean, edit, and care for them. They write in conversation with other people, in response to them, adding, subtracting, and changing as they mull over ideas.

Gnomologium Vaticanum 518

“Sophokles the tragic poet, after he heard that Euripides died in Macedonia, said “The whetstone of my poems is gone.”

Σοφοκλῆς, ὁ τῶν τραγῳδιῶν ποιητής, ἀκούσας Εὐριπίδην ἐν Μακεδονίᾳ τεθνηκέναι εἶπεν· „ἀπώλετο ἡ τῶν ἐμῶν ποιημάτων ἀκόνη.”

The view that an individual creates something wholly on their own is the application of a heroic pattern to intellectual life—it is a willful interpretation of reality and history which ignores the evidence for multiple discovery (see Merton’s 1963 study of this and this New Yorker Article where I first encountered the idea.) I think a missing piece to strengthen this hypothesis is the understanding that human cognition and creativity happens as the work of group minds, as explored by Andy Clark and David Chalmers.

We are all recipients of similar intellectual and creative traditions mediated by time, place, and shared languages. Why is it so surprising that as we surf the same currents of history we have similar ideas at the same time? Now imagine this doubled and trebled in intensity; imagine groups of singers over time engaging with audiences in special language, performance, and ritual. Who is responsible for the outcome of this process? Why do we feel so strongly the pull to impose upon such works the name and idea of a single person?

Our conviction that Homeric poetry in the ancient world achieved its form because of not despite the lack of an individual author is rooted in aesthetics and a political understanding which goes hand-in-glove with it. Near the end of our SCS Blog entry it, we write:

In all likelihood, there is a relationship between how we research and what we research, between our collaboration and the model(s) of composition and reception we explore for Homeric poetry. In both cases, we value the contribution of the unseen and the hard to recover: that is to say, the generations of singers whose own poems formed the basis of the two that have survived; the audiences whose responses to each performance helped shape and give meaning to them; and the successive generations of writers who have edited, altered, and handed them down. Similarly, we see scholarship as an activity performed by many different people. Ideally, it is not owned or monetized for individual profit, but is presented in competition with each other for a greater good.

We don’t see the contributions others make to our own work because we are conditioned not to see it. We see ourselves as heroically creating on our own because we are trained to see the world in that way and to see others as instruments. The only way to see the world differently is to start by acknowledging that our models for creation are based on will more than reality. (And that this reality can be harmful.)

My experience of writing articles and books over the past decade has only strengthened by belief that I am less an “author” in a modern sense of the word and more a conduit, a voice that brings ideas together. Indeed, I think it is no accident that part of my growth as a reader and a writer over the years is connected to this blog: I am, at the core, an aggregator and a synthesist:

HT Front 1

HT Front 2

And all I need to do to remind myself that this book, like all others, is the product of a group over time is to look at our list of acknowledgements at the front and the bibliography at the end. The ideas of each chapter developed from conversations with our friends and scholars over the years; they were sharpened and improved in presentations in person and online; they were honed by editors in different journals; and they were brought into a presentable shape by the work of editors who saved us much embarrassment.

It is hard to honor these contributions any more fully without documentation that would fill pages of a book as long and dependent on others as this one. If anything, publishing in the time of coronavirus should remind us how heavily we rely on one another, how much we enrich each other’s lives, and how much we need our social, linguistic, and political networks to make our world possible.Take some time to think about the people who shape your life and make your work possible, to evaluate the boundaries between where you end and others begin.

We don’t receive any money from the purchase of this book. If you can order it, the money will go to supporting open access publication and the work of the editors and programmers who make it possible.

For more on this book see my video conversation with the Center for Hellenic Studies’ Kosmos Society:


“Let it stand as the singular fate of the monuments of Homer and his peers that in some sense they forced philology to be born—and that they did so even before the word for Critic or Grammarian was commonly spoken.”

Maneat igitur, singularem fortunam Homericorum et supparum monumentorum extudisse quodammodo philologam criticen, idque etiam antea, quam nomen Critici aut Grammatici vulgo auditum esset.

F. A. Wolf, Prolegomena ad Homerum

Mirabile Lectu! The Book That Was Born a Blog

 “As soon as the opportunity arrives, give yourself over to your studies or to leisure”

ut primum fuerit occasio, relinque teque studiis vel otio trade

Pliny Letters, 1.9

Way back in 2014, Erik and I sat down to read the Commentary to the Iliad by Eustathius, the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, and before reading more than a few words, we ended up starting on the Homeric Batrakhomuomakhia.

[here is the publisher’s homepage]

Anyone who knows either of us or who spends time in our classes would not find this all that surprising–we (and especially I) tend to leap from topic to topic with fury and swoon under the emotional influence of texts and languages both living and dead. At the time, Erik was thinking about teaching high school and I was moving into my post-tenure malaise.

We got to know each other a few years before. I used to have students read Greek with me in the summer. Erik–who was not my student and had graduated before I was a faculty member at UTSA–joined and quickly demonstrated that (1) he knew Latin a lot better than me and (2) he cared a lot more about scholarly minutiae than I typically did.

I cannot say with strong enough force that the time we spent together over the next few years changed the way I taught, read, and thought about the ancient world. By the time we sat down to read Eustathius, Erik was in my mind an intellectual model and a true friend.

During the early years of this blog, I struggled a bit to find a partner who had the time, energy, and interest to make it into something more than it was. Erik showed pretty quickly that he had these qualities, but also a different vision–as is clear from his essays on varied subjects.

As I begin from the first page, I pray that the chorus
comes from Helikon for the sake of the song
I have just set down on the tablets at my knees;
a song of limitless strife–the war-rousing work of Ares–
because I hope to send to the ears of all mortal men
how the mice went forth to best the frogs
in imitation of the deeds of the earth born men, the giants.
Or so the tale went among men. It has this kind of beginning.

When I asked Erik if he wanted to read the “Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice” instead, it was an easy sell. We used to spend time in my office once of twice a week, using multiple monitors and just spreading all the texts we could around the place, Sometimes we would get through two lines in two hours. Sometimes we would do ten times as much. At first, we just thought we were posting translations, as we did. But, over time, as we realized we needed a commentary in English to finish our work and that we might as well write the commentary we needed, the posts changed. And, as a result, the blog changed too.

1 ᾿Αρχόμενος πρώτης σελίδος χορὸν ἐξ ῾Ελικῶνος
2 ἐλθεῖν εἰς ἐμὸν ἦτορ ἐπεύχομαι εἵνεκ’ ἀοιδῆς
3 ἣν νέον ἐν δέλτοισιν ἐμοῖς ἐπὶ γούνασι θῆκα,
4 δῆριν ἀπειρεσίην, πολεμόκλονον ἔργον ῎Αρηος,
5 εὐχόμενος μερόπεσσιν ἐς οὔατα πᾶσι βαλέσθαι
6 πῶς μύες ἐν βατράχοισιν ἀριστεύσαντες ἔβησαν,
7 γηγενέων ἀνδρῶν μιμούμενοι ἔργα Γιγάντων,
8 ὡς λόγος ἐν θνητοῖσιν ἔην• τοίην δ’ ἔχεν ἀρχήν.

So, in a way, the story of the book that came out today (“The Homeric Battle of the Frogs and Mice”, Bloomsbury 2018) is the story both of how a book came from a blog and how a blog became a book. At our wildest fancy, we thought we would pitch it to some open source repository or present it more completely on the website.

But we were afforded the otium to pursue and complete this project. We built up several documents in Dropbox and spent hours apart adding and subtracting to the comments and what we thought should be in the introduction…While kids and pets were sleeping or eating, we typed away at additional bits or did extra word searches. We had help from excellent libraries at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the Center for the Anthropology of the Ancient World at the University of Siena, and Brandeis University. We tested the commentary online and with graduate students at UT Austin and Brandeis.

“Clearly, something must be published – ah, it would be best if I could just publish what I have already finished!

Est enim plane aliquid edendum — atque utinam hoc potissimum quod paratum est!

Pliny the Younger

And]along the way, I think we had a pretty good time. After we had completed the book’s parts, we had a few conversations with the classics acquisitions editor at Bloomsbury. She was interested in the project, and, believe it or not, the blog and twitter feed’s following. That meeting was in the spring of 2016.

During the summer I left Texas for Boston (to return to teach at my undergraduate alma mater, Brandeis University) and Erik continued his teaching at a local high school with a serendipitously similar name. Ah, we no longer have those long Monday afternoons staring at ancient Greek! But we have the memory and this book. Imperfect as it may be, I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of it.

Seneca, De Tranquilitate Animi

“Still nothing lightens the spirit as much as sweet and faithful friendship. What a good it is when hearts have been made ready in which every secret may be safely deposited, whose understanding of yourself you worry about less than your own, whose conversation relieves your fear, whose opinion hastens your plans, whose happiness dispels your sadness, and whose very sight delights you!”

Nihil tamen aeque oblectaverit animum, quam amicitia fidelis et dulcis. Quantum bonum est, ubi praeparata sunt pectora, in quae tuto secretum omne descendat, quorum conscientiam minus quam tuam timeas, quorum sermo sollicitudinem leniat, sententia consilium expediat, hilaritas tristitiam dissipet, conspectus ipse delectet!


Two Roman Notes of Encouragement for Procrastinating Authors

I suspect there are others are just like me right now, keeping busy and avoiding the start of summer projects. Alas, Martial’s words ring in my head every morning: “You will live tomorrow, you say? Postumus, even living today is too late; he is the wise man, who lived yesterday.” (Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est: / ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri, 5.58). Here are two Roman authors talking about writing and publication.

Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 13-14

“Why do we need to compose work that will endure for generations? Why not stop driving to make sure posterity won’t be quiet about you? You have been born mortal—a silent funeral is less annoying! So, for the sake of passing time, write something for your use in a simple style not for publication. There is less need to work for those who study just for today.”

Quid opus est saeculis duratura componere? Vis tu non id agere, ne te posteri taceant? Morti natus es, minus molestiarum habet funus tacitum! Itaque occupandi temporis causa, in usum tuum, non in praeconium aliquid simplici stilo scribe; minore labore opus est studentibus in diem.


Pliny the Younger, Letters 10 To Octavius Rufus

“For the meantime, do as you wish regarding publication too. Recite it from time to time, then you may feel more eager to publish and then you may experience the joy I have long been predicting for you, and not without reason. I imagine what crowds, what admiration, what clamor then silence awaits you. (For myself, I like this as much as applause when I speak or read, as long as it shows a desire to hear me speaking). There is a great reward ready for you! Stop undermining your work with endless delay! When even this is excessive, we need to be wary of hearing the name of idleness, laziness, or even fear. Farewell!”

Et de editione quidem interim ut voles: recita saltem quo magis libeat emittere, utque tandem percipias gaudium, quod ego olim pro te non temere praesumo. Imaginor enim qui concursus quae admiratio te, qui clamor quod etiam silentium maneat; quo ego, cum dico vel recito, non minus quam clamore delector, sit modo silentium acre et intentum, et cupidum ulteriora audiendi. Hoc fructu tanto tam parato desine studia tua infinita ista cunctatione fraudare; quae cum modum excedit, verendum est ne inertiae et desidiae vel etiam timiditatis nomen accipiat. Vale.

Image result for Ancient Roman Book


Pliny the Younger, Letters 1.2

“Clearly, something must be published – ah, it would be best if I could just publish what I have already finished! (You may hear in this the wish of laziness.)

Est enim plane aliquid edendum — atque utinam hoc potissimum quod paratum est! Audis desidiae votum