Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘D’Aulaires

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

My fifty essential books

with 4 comments

Just over a year and a half ago, I moved from New York to Chicago, forcing me to figure out what to do with seven years’ worth of books. The prospect of shipping them all to my new apartment was daunting: after years of living a temptingly short train ride from the Strand, all of my shelves were stacked at least two books deep, and additional piles were everywhere. In the end, I ultimately decided to radically downsize my library, going from something like thirty boxes of books down to six. And the experience taught me a lot about which books really mattered to me.

But what if I only had room for fifty books? Or twenty? Or five? Such drastic reduction, real or imaginary, is the most ruthless way I know of building a personal canon—which, really, is nothing more than a series of choices. Do I care more about Borges or Conan Doyle? Shakespeare or Proust? Life rarely demands such stark decisions, but it’s a useful way of creating a self-portrait in books, as if a library were a block of raw stone that had to be carved away, piece by piece, until what remained was something like an image of myself. With that in mind, then, here’s as true a portrait of my inner life as I know how to provide:

1. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and William S. Baring-Gould
2. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
4. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth
5. A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
6. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson
7. The Complete Walker III by Colin Fletcher
8. The Next Whole Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand (editor)
9. The White Goddess by Robert Graves
10. A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by William Shakespeare and Ted Hughes

11. Rabbit Angstrom by John Updike
12. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
13. The Complete Peanuts (1969-1970) by Charles M. Schulz
14. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
15. Immortal Poems of the English Language by Oscar Williams
16. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
17. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
18. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (translated by Allen Mandelbaum)
19. Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
20. The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

21. Metamagical Themas by Douglas R. Hofstadter
22. It by Stephen King
23. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
24. Napoleon by Emil Ludwig
25. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
26. The I Ching by Richard Wilhelm (translator)
27. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
28. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
29. The Writer’s Chapbook by George Plimpton (editor)
30. Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman

31. The Complete Far Side by Gary Larson
32. Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini
33. On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson
34. World Tales by Idries Shah
35. On Directing Film by David Mamet
36. The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang
37. Cain x 3 by James M. Cain
38. Atonement by Ian McEwan
39. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
40. The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll and Martin Gardner

41. The Codebreakers by David Kahn
42. The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea
43. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
44. The Magus by John Fowles
45. For Keeps by Pauline Kael
46. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
47. Ulysses by James Joyce
48. The Apology by Plato
49. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
50. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A few notes: Borges and Conan Doyle switched places at the last second. Dropped at the final minute were the Iliad and Antigone (the last remaining vestiges of a classical education). I’ve limited myself to one book per author, which resulted in surprisingly few omissions. If pressed, I might want to take a few extra volumes of The Complete Peanuts instead of the last several authors. And, obviously, this isn’t meant as a list of the best books of all time, or even necessarily of my own favorites—just the books without which I would find it very inconvenient to live.

Tomorrow, I’ll be doing the same thing for movies.

%d bloggers like this: