My Favourite Book

(A university library panel recently invited us to present the case for our favourite books. Here are a few thoughts that I jotted down about mine)

My Favourite Book

Choosing a single book, one book out of all one’s reading? Fascinating, but crazy. When I lived in England decades ago I used to listen to DESERT ISLAND DISCS, a radio show on which notable people would choose five or six pieces of music they’d take to a desert island. Even in that venue they had a few supplementary choices before they named NUMBER ONE. And film people, critics, writers, directors, are always being asked for lists of their ten best—but as one of them said when responding to a request for his “ten best,” How can I do that?” he complained. “The list changes every week!”

For my part I find naming “best tens” among my film, literature and music favourites almost impossible. Fifty maybe. But one? Wow!!!! Impossible!!!

I’ll explain my choice and advocate it in a minute, but since we’ll be talking later about reading in general let me approach my choice by explaining how it came about. Then I’ll zero in on my favourite book.

I was born in NYC, in Manhattan, and we moved slowly north, through the Bronx’s Grand Concourse and up to Westchester County.

The two Westchester cities we lived in both had terrific local libraries—one in Mount Vernon, and one in New Rochelle.

These were old style libraries devoid of technological wonders and gimmicks.

The Mount Vernon library had Three levels—grade school, junior high and adult. There was huge excitement for me in being allowed to move from one to the next. I went from so-called boys books like the historical novels of Joseph Altsheler, forgotten now, to Sir James Jeans, and Arthur Eddington, and Bertrand Russell, various English and American classics, and that wonderful European fiction published by Alfred Knopf. Knopf was busy bringing out translations of great works by Nobel prizewinners and other distinguished Europeans like Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Par Lagerkvist, Johannnes Jensen, Andre Gide, and many others.

In those days books were published by family firms, like Knopf, Scribners, and Macmillan, by people who loved good books; they hadn’t yet become subsidiaries of oil companies or the Disney corporation.

I’ve visited and worked in some fabulous libraries—in 2010 I visited that shining palace of a library in downtown LA, which through its difficult history had funding from people like Gregory Peck. I felt thrilled years before to work in the magnificent dowager of libraries the old British Museum, and in the NY Public Library, but nothing was so important for me as the Mount Vernon Public Library, because that’s where I discovered my first literary treasures and joys of reading.

At the same time I was visiting the library I was buying my first books—some of which I still own and treasure. The first book I ever bought on my own was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It was the Modern Library version , part of that great series. The Modern Library provided coupons on their dust jackets, so that you could send off for any of the series, and for $1.25, or if the book was really big, maybe $2.50, you could get a whole host of great texts. Another mail order place was the Classics Club, which put out wonderful books in somewhat cheesy pretentious formats. The Iliad, Odyssey, Henry Esmond by Thackeray, were three I bought. I used to write my name and the date I bought the book inside the cover and this tells me I bought and first read Crime and Punishment when I was sixteen and the Odyssey in 1951 when I was seventeen.

And when I read the Odyssey, even in the Victorian Samuel Butler’s stodgy translation, I knew I’d found one of my favourite books of all time.

The only bits I’d read earlier were from Andrew Lang’s retelling for young people, but here was the whole tamale, so to speak, and what a feast it was (I was later to learn that Samuel Butler was one of those who thought, from internal evidence, that the Odyssey had been written by a woman. Another writer who did so was Robert Graves, who wrote a very good novel about it, called Homer’s Daughter). TE Lawrence of Arabia also translated the Odyssey, a fascinating thought, an adventurer translating one of the great adventures stories.

Over the years I’ve read many translations of the Odyssey. When I used the book at Carleton University in my courses I used the Penguin E.V. Rieu translation. Robert Fagels is the current favourite, and wonderful as that translation is, it’s poetry, and it seemed better to introduce the book to baffled students, in as straightforward a form as possible.

Teaching Great Books

If it’s a joy to read great books, it’s an even greater joy to share them with others, to teach them in a course, or just discuss them. Now I’m jumping from the 1950-51, when I was 16 and 17, to the 1980s, when I took over and transformed the Carleton course called Myth and Symbol.

This was an English Department course required for Humanities Students and populated by third and fourth year history, psychology, and anthropology students, and many others. There were even some English students in there!

I had complete freedom to choose the books, so I decided to deal with books I loved or admired or wanted to know better. The common thread was mythology—the books had to have a connection with western mythology. (One of my current writing projects is a book on literature and transformation and many of these old Myth and Symbol titles are with me again).

The course books included some wonderful texts:

The Epic of Gilgamesh—parts of which were written or told about the time of the later Stonehenge.
The Book of Genesis
The great Roman romance known as The Golden Ass of Apuleius
Grettir’s Saga
Tristan and Iseult
The novels of Par Lagerkvist and Knut Hamsun, Thomas Mann and DH Lawrence
Mikhail Bulgakov’s wonderful The Master and Margarita
Many of the great fairy tales
Also,  a host of popular and popcult favourites including Philip K Dick, Tarzan, and Dracula, and some of the UFO narratives

But the Odyssey, oh the Odyssey—that’s the ultimate story for me! Simone Weil called the Iliad “the poem of war” –well, surely then, the Odyssey is the poem of homecoming. And we still have wars and we still have homecomings. Homecomings that lead to disaster like Agamemnon’s, or homecomings that lead back —with quite a bit of violence thrown in– to familiar places and domestic tranquilities, such as that of Odysseus.

The Odyssey has been vastly influential on ordinary people, creative people through the ages. As the Lennon song says “I’m not the only one.”

There’s James Joyce, and Ezra Pound, echoes in Irish and Arabian Nights stories, and science fiction, multiple allusions in opera, visual art and film , including one by Jean-Luc Godard, and contemporary “takes” right up to Zachary Mason’s metafictional The Lost Books of the Odyssey, published in 2010. The Victorian Poet Tennyson wrote two of his best poems based on the Odyssey, “The Lotus Eaters” and “Ulysses”—in the latter he almost equates Ulysses or Odysseus with the questing spirit of western society,

And no wonder the book fascinates—it has just everything. An unforgettable structure, which plunges us right into the middle of the story, in medias res, as they call it. It’s got unforgettable fantasy content, mysterious asides and references, familiar domestic scenes of huge impact, and a wonderful sense of the sea, so vividly depicted that mariners right up to the present have constantly identified parts of the narrative with scenes in the Mediterranean and beyond.

Above all the Odyssey is a journey, the journey of a man in search of home, who encounters every kind of strangeness, and meets some of the greatest female characters ever created in literature, Calypso, Naussica, Athena, Circe the witch-goddess, and finally Penelope.

To take only one of these–there is his relationship to Circe on her mysterious island. There under the guidance of Hermes, he wrestles with the positive/negative and enchanting aspects of the feminine. He succeeds in turning the witch into a helper, suggesting that he has established a good relationship with his own feminine side.

This enables him the descend to the underworld, the deepest unconscious side of existence and to unravel his own fate. In a touching scene he tries, three times, to embrace the shade of his dead mother. Before our hero is frightened out of Hades by the threat of a gorgon sent by Persephone—showing the unboundaried dimensions of hidden female power– the prophet Teresias tells his future. He will return home, yes, but he also has a personal mission, which is to make peace with the nature spirit embodied in Poseidon by carrying a ship’s oar inland and planting it in a strange country. The idea here is that even though we might re-establish tranquility in the outer world and in our family relationships, we may have a personal process of development and reconciliation to undergo. Odysseus is feisty and given to boasting and he challenges the Sea-God, and he has to pay the price.

The whole journey sums up many of the archetypal aspects of the hero’s voyage from ordinary life to the strangest regions and back. In the course of these adventures we begin to understand the workings of the transformation process, not because the hero is really inwardly transformed, because there is no depiction of the inward in the Homeric epic—this isn’t a modern novel– but because the hero’s adventures are symbolically and mythically representative of transformation. The symbol of Lotus eating is so powerful that it conveys the idea of a trap of ease and beauty, without us ever having this articulated in Odysseus’ mind for us.

So what we see in this great text is a schematic representation of a kind, even though every incident is touched with pathos and human depth. Odysseus’ return in disguise throws him into conjunction with the lowly. He has to share handouts with a beggar, to endure the doubts of his wife and to unleash a final violence, based on the test of the great bow, before he can purge his kingdom of the enemies. He has to re-establish his authority with his son and to pay homage to his aged father.

Yes, this is a choice of favourite book I’m happy with. The book was composed by some great rhapsode, or inspired song-stitcher, putting together many stories into one grand package, around the eighth century BCE. It was later written down and, unlike some other ancient epics, survived to give us one of our most treasurable pictures of human life in a world both strange and familiar.

The well-known pre-Bob Dylan-era folksinger Richard Dyer-Bennet spent his last years at around age 90 at a university in upstate New York attempting to record a bard-like sung version of this great book. He didn’t complete the job, but what a great project! I would hope to be able to read and feed off this great book a few times more before I join the shades.

If you haven’t read it, get hold of a translation right away–Fagels, Fitzgerald, Rieu, or anyone that pleases you– and enrich your life! Or follow the example of Heinrich Schliemann, who believed that “Troy” was a real place and led the way there. Schliemann learned Greek in six weeks so that he could read the Iliad and the Odyssey, and his personal adventure in search of Troy had huge ramifications in archeology. Not a bad idea to follow in his footsteps and seek out the magic and the reality of those old stories.


2 Responses to My Favourite Book

  1. Greer Johnston says:

    Beautiful thoughts about The Odyssey, Tom. I took your “Myth and Symbol” course at Carleton 25 years ago and the magic you conveyed is still with me today. Your lectures were absolutely the most mind-expanding of my entire university experience. I studied Classical Civilization so “Myth and Symbol” was a fantastic compliment to my other courses. At the time, my Classics profs were using the Lattimore translations of the Iliad and The Odyssey, but now I’m going to look up the Rieu translation you suggest. Thank you so much for your passionate and fascinating lectures — every university student should be so lucky!

    All the best!

    • tomottawa says:

      Hi Greer,

      Wow! Thanks for your note and your positive memories of the good old Myth and Symbol course. Very glad the texts have been a real influence on you. You can imagine how thrilling it was for me to talk about such great books.

      Also, amazingly enough, your note arrived with a nice synchronistic flair. I’ve been working on the Odyssey myself in recent weeks—with another form of presentation in mind for it and other texts. Just a couple of days ago in fact I watched the Odysseus movie made in the late 1990s (I think), a European one with some good moments (well, good scenery at least!) but a lot of gaffes too, and a confused plot. Circe and Calypso were both pretty awful, and the gods and goddesses lacked all mystery and “other-realm” strangeness. The hero himself wasn’t bad and Penelope (Greta Scacchi) did a pretty nice job. I think it’s great that you are looking for a good translation–there are so many now, and some just not enjoyable. The good ones that come to mind for me right now include the ones done by the following translators: E.V. Rieu (yes),Richmond Lattimore (very solid and accurate), Robert Fitzgerald (in the end, probably my favourite read), and Robert Fagels (much celebrated in recent years, obviously very good).

      Delightful to hear from you and here’s another odd connection. Even as I opened and read your note (and thanks again for your praise, so encouraging for me to hear it at just this time!) I was choosing a translation of the Odyssey to give my five-year old grandson for Xmas! It might seem that I’m rushing things, but hey, this kid already speaks Spanish and English fluently and is coming along very fast in French. (I’m using the book praised by readers on the Amazon sale page, and I haven’t read it, so I hope it turns out to be good (it’s the Usborne edition, for youngsters).

      How really nice to hear from someone who was part of the old lecture scene and who honours me with such nice words. Thank you! Have a great holiday.

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