We all of us have massive gaping holes in our reading, I am sure. Well, perhaps not all of us. Clive James almost certainly doesn’t. But the list of books I haven’t read is growing all the time, and as I get older it looms over me like some dark tower in Mordor (I am half-Welsh, and thus my glass is always Half-Empty).
Last night I managed to take at least one brick out of the tower by finishing the?Iliad. Shamingly, it was an edition I bought at college over twenty years ago?and had never read. I only picked it up again because of an old Start the Week which featured Caroline Alexander discussing The War That Killed Achilles, a book I bought probably because I thought it would make me finally, at last, read the chuffing Iliad. Which it did.
This isn’t a review of the Iliad. It’s a blogpost about the impossibility of reviewing the Iliad. Reading something like this is quite a bit more than spending some time with anything as paltry as a book. It’s more like learning to meditate, or tap dance, or fly.
It’s repetitive. Its narrative is all over the place. It flips from Olympian comedy to nauseating violence within a dozen lines. Entire pages go by listing names of soldiers and their fathers and their brothers and their cousins and the farm they grew up on in the region they were born in, and you’ve never heard any of these names before, and they all begin to merge into one like the art does in the Louvre, as you drown in the strangeness of it.?And it’s long. Really, really long.
So I’m sure most people think “why bother?” and I can’t blame them. But I think when you pick something up like the Iliad?you’re actually performing a kind of service to humanity. There’s no less ponderous way of saying it. There are some texts – and they tend to be texts which have been preserved from a long-gone civilisation – which need to continue to be read, because in some way the reading of them connects us with our past and preserves the texts for the future. I’m thinking of Gilgamesh, of Beowulf, of Langland and of Chaucer and of the Greek tragedies and the great Indian texts. I’ve read only a few of these things, and (whisper it) I didn’t enjoy the reading of them nearly as much as I wanted to, but I’m glad I did. In some way I can’t explain, you should be glad I did as well. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest there needs to be some kind of web service that allows every human who reads one of these things to hold their hand up and go “Here! Here’s another one!”
These are mankind’s sacred texts (and I should of course include the officially-sanctioned “sacred texts”, and I really must read the Koran one of these days). In aggregate, they tell us who we are and who we were. They would die from lack of attention. It is our duty as human beings to at least try to read as many of them as possible. Reading the Iliad?was frustrating, difficult and often tedious. But at the end of it, it had become part of me, and I would recommend anyone to read it without hesitation.
That said, I could murder an Alistair MacLean right now.