“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.