Why You Ought to Read the Iliad and the Odyssey

Happy Friday!

Coffee always smells richer on a Friday, doesn’t it?

As I sat in my living room this morning, surrounded by books, I noticed my Homer collection.  Sadly, I haven’t read the Iliad and the Odyssey in years.

But when I did, it was terrific.  Let me tell you about it, in this light Rude edition.

It’s Time to Go Homer.

I’m not classically educated by any means.

Although Hasbrouck Heights Junior/Senior High School was a repository of excellent teachers – and a few pretty bad ones – the English department was impeccable.

But I wasn’t into reading in high school.

As I like to say: one hundred pounds ago, I was the quarterback of the football team, the lead in the school play, and an honors student (whatever the hell that means).

I loved my high school life, and I had too much else to do to read books.

Sweethearts

My high school sweetheart was a reader, though, and I remember her recommending to me reading Erich Segal’s immensely popular book called Love Story.

You may remember the movie with Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw.

I remember reading the book and being so engrossed that I brought it into the bathroom with me. And fortunately for me, that’s when Jenny died. So, while I was bawling my eyes out on the toilet, nobody saw me.

Thank God for that.

I don’t know why I told you that, but hey, I feel close to you.

Truth be told, my love of reading wasn’t born at that moment.

As I had written before in the Rude, my college sweetheart was a literature major, and I really started picking up the classics from her.

Later in my life, when I started hanging around with all my crazy libertarian friends, I couldn’t believe how well-read they all were.

They still astound me with the books that they’ve read. It’s brilliant.

I have a library stocked full of books, some of which I’ve read, most of which I haven’t.

The Anti-Library

I take comfort in Nassim Taleb’s theory of the anti-library, where most learned men have gigantic libraries and haven’t read all the books. The books are there for research.

That always made me feel better.

But I also like audio recordings. I like audio recordings because when you are traveling in a car or just walking around where you’d ordinarily be listening to music, you can get a delightful story in.

Brian Tracy once said to make your car your university, and I think that’s good advice.

My crazy libertarian friends are very well steeped in Western civilization and its history.  There’s a good reason for that.  There has been a sustained attack on our culture for at least 150 years.

So, they’ve all read the Iliad and the Odyssey.

I remember in eighth grade reading part of the Odyssey, but we never went through the whole book.  And we certainly didn’t go through the Iliad because, well, that was the “war” book. 

With that said, I can’t recommend enough to get the audiobooks of the Iliad and the Odyssey that Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey fame, narrates.

Escape From Hong Kong

When Pam and I lived in Hong Kong and Micah was first born, I was still commuting into my offices at the International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong’s tallest building.

Though we had a beautiful view across the harbor to that magnificent Hong Kong skyline, it didn’t give me much succor.

I was miserable on the job, and I wanted to leave from the day I started.  But Pam became pregnant with Micah, and we were trapped.

So, we had to stay for at least a couple of years.

I thought I’d spend some time learning something, but of course, when you have a newborn, that’s hard.

I thought, “You know what, I’m not going to read the Iliad and the Odyssey.  There’s no way because I can’t concentrate at home, but what I could do is get the audiobooks instead.”

They’re oral tales, and I might as well listen to them on my commute.

I learned two important things, at least.

But first, think about this: why did we skip the Iliad?

That’s because the Iliad is the “war” book, and most English teachers don’t want to teach war books.

It’s ridiculous because the whole point of the Iliad is how wasteful and counterproductive war is.

It doesn’t glorify the war at all!

The exchange between Glaucus and Diomedes, when Diomedes rips off Glaucus, is a beautiful encapsulation of the book’s theme.

Homer wants us to think, “They went to war over this woman, this silly affront, and Troy is going to be destroyed because of it?”

Here’s what happened:

In response to Diomedes’ challenge to him, Glaucus said that as a grandson of Bellerophon, he would fight anybody. Upon learning of Glaucus’ ancestry, Diomedes planted his spear in the ground and told of how his grandfather Oeneus was a close friend of Bellerophon, and declared that the two of them despite being on opposing sides should continue the friendship. As a sign of friendship, Diomedes took off his bronze armor worth nine oxen and gave it to Glaucus. The latter then had his wits taken by Zeus and gave Diomedes his golden armor, said to be worth 100 oxen.

It’s an epic example of foreshadowing.  What price for pride?

Attempting to be an autodidact, I also bought the Great Courses on the books.

Elizabeth Vandiver taught the courses, and they are fantastic.

So, I listened to the books and then went through the course to understand what was going on. Now, this was a few years ago, and I need to refresh because there’s a lot of stuff I forgot as one is wont to do after a few years.

The second thing I loved about these books was how important fathers are. And that’s a big theme nowadays: fathers are treated as unimportant and portrayed as buffoons on sitcoms.

But if you think about it, one of the reasons why Odysseus has so much trouble in Ithaca is that he took an entire generation of Ithacans with him to go to war.

Those men all died at war, leaving their now fatherless sons to become Penelope suitors. Of course, they have been poorly behaved!  They had no dads!

When Odysseus returns, he’s enraged by their behavior and slaughters them all in his own house.

Odysseus, the King, deprived his own country of two generations of good men, and had it not been for Athena’s intervention at the end of the Odyssey, the mob would’ve murdered him as punishment.

It’s instructive and soothing to think Homer is trying to communicate two big ideas to us.

The first is: war is terrible, and the second, fathers matter.

In conclusion, I can’t recommend you go out and get the Iliad and the Odyssey fast enough. 

Listen to it on your treks. I remember listening to it on a subway, on the Hong Kong MTR, and being so engrossed I was shadowboxing.

The Hongkongers were looking at me as if I were insane.

I apologized to everybody, but I was so into the book!  You’ll be into it too. And it will be an excellent self-education opportunity for you if you haven’t experienced them yet.

I hope you enjoy it.  And I hope you have a great weekend.

All the best,

Sean

P.S.  The Iliad ends at Hector’s death, not with the Horse!  The Greeks kill Hector’s son to ensure the line is dead.  Who ordered it?  Was it Odysseus?  Or was it bloodthirsty soldiers?  Helen of Troy (as was) shows up in the Odyssey.  How did that happen?  Read and find out.  It’ll change your perceptions.

As St. Augustine once heard the children sing, “Tolle Lege!”  (Take up and read!)

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