I always feel uncertain writing about classics like Voltaire’s Candide. I mean, this was a book that was cited during the French Revolution in the 1790’s, and its influence is vast. Lots of thought has gone into Candide and its philosophy.
But chances are good you probably haven’t read it. So a quick summary: this is a short adventure novel with a lot of action and a basic debate between optimism and pessimism. Should Candide be an optimist or a pessimist? But that makes it sound boring and it’s not. Like I said, there’s a lot of adventure and hi-jinks and you can read it as a straight adventure story that’s only about 100 pages long. You can choose to engage in it at your preferred level. And I liked that.
I read it mostly as an adventure story – Candide does travel all over the world after all – but with some light philosophizing. Is it better to be a pessimist and never be let down? Or does optimism drive you to be better and do more? It’s not proscriptive; you get to decide for yourself.
Recommended, because there’s not enough thinking about optimism in culture today.
I don’t quite understand a fiction book whose point is that people who read fiction books are messed up because they read fiction books. Are you full of self-loathing? Do you think your fiction book is somehow better than other fiction books? “No, no,” you say, “my fiction book is different because it exposes those other fiction books as unreal and changing people’s expectations of the world from something reasonable to something over the top.” Um, ok. Whatever.
Clearly, I didn’t get into Madame Bovary – which is about a woman whose reading screws with her expectations of what her life will really be like. Your milage may vary – it is a classic after all.
What’s it about?
Confronting the Classics is a series of book reviews written for the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement over the years by the author. Mary Beard is a famous classicist (if there is such a thing as a famous classicist), and her reviews are all trying to answer the question: why does this particular book she’s reviewing matter to you, a non-classicist?
Why should you read it?
I loved it for a few reasons.
- I have a not-so-secret fondness for Ancient Rome. Mary Beard has a great skeptical eye through which to take a second look at some books I’ve read.
- Not to mention suggestions for all kinds of new books to read. Seriously, this one made my to-read list grow.
- She asks the serious question: why is Asterix so funny? Why do so many people (including me) love Asterix?
- I like her approach to book reviewing – asking why a particular book matters to someone who isn’t a classicist allows her to explore all kinds of questions. What was the woman’s voice in Ancient Greece (about Sappho)? What did the ancients find funny? Why do we still find most of those jokes funny?
- So much of what we know about the ancient world is because of what’s been written down. That’s biased in certain ways, with certain people wanting to influence how someone else was perceived. (e.g. Augustus burning anything about Cleopatra that didn’t fit how he wanted Roman society to see her). She takes a critical eye that reminded me a lot of modern media studies – there’s a thread in common with, say, Anne Helen Petersen.
Overall, I enjoyed it. You might too.
What’s it about?
The Gods of Olympus shows how the ancient Greek Olympians are portrayed throughout Western history, from archaic Greece (~800 bce) to the Renaissance (1500 ce), with many stops in between. It talks about historical realities (Augustus was portrayed as Apollo, Antony was Bacchus, to his detriment as the two were warring for control of the Roman Empire), and how the Olympians as characters changed and stayed the same.
Why should you read it?
It turns out that the history of the Olympians is a useful proxy for a history of Western civilization. As different cultures become ascendent, they tend to adopt the gods and portray them as their own. The Romans’ gods transformed from civic deities into cults of personality after they conquered the Greeks. The gods became personifications of nature during the Renaissance. I’ve never read another book quite like this one – there are plenty of stories about the Olympians, but not another book that traces their characters through history and reflecting that back on the culture. It was interesting.