Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The road to a classical education

with 3 comments

D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths

Last week, I read Daniel Mendelsohn’s touching account in The New Yorker of his youthful correspondence with Mary Renault, the author of The King Must Die and other novels set in ancient Greece. Mendelsohn’s tribute to her generosity is very moving, and it’s a story that I think every writer should read, if only to be reminded of how important even small acts of kindness to a fan can be, and the impact they can have on a young person’s life. Most readers will probably take the greatest interest in Mendelsohn’s discussion of how Renault’s novels, with their frank treatment of homosexuality, helped him come to terms with being gay, but I was even more struck by the fact that her books also inspired him to become a classicist. “The writers we absorb when we’re young bind us to them, sometimes lightly, sometimes with iron,” Mendelsohn writes. “In time, the bonds fall away, but if you look very closely you can sometimes make out the pale white groove of a faded scar, or the telltale chalky red of old rust.”

In a sense, the choice of an undergraduate major is one of the few reasonably pure decisions most of us ever make. The process of choosing a career, especially your first job, is usually constrained by many factors out of your control, but in theory, college presents a limitless—and dizzyingly accessible—range of possibilities. I still remember the heady thrill I felt while browsing through the course catalog as a freshman, and the realization that I really could become, say, an astrophysicist, if only I was willing to put in the necessary work. Obviously, going to a good college is a privilege that not everyone can afford, and our choices are probably more limited than they seem: I probably wouldn’t have made much of an astrophysicist, or psychologist, or any of the other professions that briefly seemed so enticing. Yet it’s one of the few times in our lives when we’re at least given the illusion of being able to influence our own fates, even if we’re often too young at the time to really know what we’re doing.

Mary Renault

Like Mendelsohn, my decision to become a classicist was informed by the books I read growing up. First among them is the D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths, a volume I all but memorized in grade school, and which I still think is one of the ten best children’s books ever written. Like all great books for kids, it draws you in at first with its surface pleasures, especially its gorgeous illustrations, only to reveal surprising depths. It’s a wise, intelligent retelling of Greek mythology without a trace of condescension, and it taught me things that came in handy years later in my college classes: I’ll never forget my pride as the only student in my section who recognized an obscure reference to the story of Tithonus, who was transformed into a cicada when his lover, the goddess Eos, asked that he be granted eternal life, but forgot to ask for eternal youth as well. When one of my classmates asked how I knew this, I replied simply: “From D’Aulaires.” And I wasn’t alone: I know for a fact that many of my fellow concentrators could trace their love of classical literature to the same book.

And it was only the first in a long chain of books that led me further down the same path. I have a hunch that my urge to learn Latin and Greek was subconsciously influenced by the Indiana Jones trilogy, in which a knowledge of dead languages was clearly a prerequisite, as well as by my love of such authors as Robert Graves and Umberto Eco, for whom such proficiency was a given. Later, I was haunted by John Gardner’s admonition, in The Art of Fiction, that “the really serious-minded way” for a writer to build his vocabulary was to study classical and modern languages. As a result, when I got to college, I was primed to at least take a few courses in Classics, and would probably have ended up majoring in it anyway even if I hadn’t been given an extra quixotic push by the book Who Killed Homer? But the seeds had been planted long before. My life, like Mendelsohn’s, would have been completely different if you’d taken away only five or six books that I read almost by accident. And I wear their faded scars with pride.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2013 at 9:50 am

3 Responses

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  1. D’Aulaires is on my list of five or six! …along with another book whose title and author I have no memory of, and whose premise I remember so indistinctly that I fear I’ll never find it again. It’s weird how memory works. :-)


    January 15, 2013 at 1:20 pm

  2. Want to throw it out here? You never know…


    January 15, 2013 at 1:47 pm

  3. Sure! The novel is about a girl (probably aged 10-12), and all I really remember is it had this kind of quiet, sombre tone to the writing, and the protagonist either found an old journal or accidentally started time travelling. (?) By the end of the book, it turned out that the elderly female neighbour she had befriended in her real life was also the young girl she had also befriended in the journal/time travel.


    January 18, 2013 at 9:24 am

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