Book Review: Homer: A Beginner’s Guide by Elton Barker and Joel Christensen

“Homer’s story is also a story about us. It is about where we think poetic beauty and sublime meaning come from, about how we think about two poems that both belong to their own time and speak across the generations, about our basic assumptions concerning the nature of literature. In short, it is about why stories matter and the impact they have on the world around them.”

I am forever searching for short, insightful books to recommend as introductions to Homer and the epics attributed to him. One favorite is Barbara Graziosi’s Homer, which is part of the A Very Short Introduction series. I highly recommend it for getting a sense of the landscape around Homer, the essential paradox of the these poems, the challenges of reading them in and across time, a sample of their compelling themes.

But no short book about Homer can capture all that these poems are and, of course. How could it?

Last month I was thrilled to discover another thoroughly engaging introduction to Homer, this one by Elton Barker and Joel Christensen that is part of the A Beginner’s Guide series (from what I can gather, there are a number of series of this kind?). One of this short book’s most valuable qualities is the authors’ ability to resist the impulse to homogenize heroes, isolating and magnifying some qualities while ignoring other, equally true and contradictory ones.

The book is accessibly written (i.e. jargon free) without losing depth and profundity. The authors do not front-load cultural context but draw on it as they go, performing what I would call a very organic kind of internal reading. After a brief introduction, they devote three chapters each to the Iliad and the Odyssey, with a short epilogue. I found this a delightful, insightful, thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

I see many potential audiences for this book, including literature teachers who are not classicists but want to include Homer in their curriculum, specialists or recreational readers who enjoy the epics and discussions of them, first time readers who would like some guidance.

I would love to hear in the comments what you have been reading and loving lately.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Homer: A Beginner’s Guide by Elton Barker and Joel Christensen

  1. It’s good to know books like this exist for Homer and his works. That and your question at the end make me think of some things I’ve been reading. I’m researching a historical period that I’m not particularly familiar with, and the best guides have turned out to be ones made for elementary and middle school students! The ideas are simple, illustrations are helpful, and there’s no room for stuffy historians or the assumption that a reader is already extremely familiar with any of the information. It’s been a wonderful way to start researching.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these guides to Homer – I’ll keep them in mind if I venture into finally reading the entire “Odyssey” one day!

    1. I completely agree about history guides for younger readers! One of the most memorable and fascinating histories I read about the early Soviet period is a young adult nonfiction book called “Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad” by Matthew Tobin Anderson. It was a riveting, incredible story, and from a writer’s perspective, it was illuminating how Anderson wove everything together in a way that was accessible without being reductive.

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