January 12, 2009

#01-208: Reading the "Great Books": Meet Homer - Part I

marble statue of an old bearded man with a headband; the blank eyes give the impression he is blind

Note: The 20th century saw a boom in reading what some call "The Great Books," starting (according to some) with the works of Homer.

Get Ready: What do you consider to be a "Great Book"--that is, one that has been read and will be read for centuries, not just today? What makes such a book "Great"?

Chinese literature names four Ming-period novels as its greatest books: The Journey to the West, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Dream of Red Mansions, and The Outlaws of the Marsh.

English literature has no such short list. While Shakespeare is considered our greatest writer, there is no universal agreement as to which of his plays were his greatest.

There is also a long-running debate as to which book is "The Great American Novel," perfectly capturing the "American Spirit." Nineteenth-century choices included The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Huckleberry Finn. In the20th, The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath have been suggested.

The problem becomes much bigger when we consider the so-called Great Books of Western literature. Possible lists stretching all the way back to the Classical Greeks cover thousands of books by hundreds of authors. All types of people, from scholars to the average student, have tried to develop a list of "the Western Canon," with mixed results.

In the middle of the 20th century, there was even a "Great Books movement," where people formed community groups to discuss these books. As part of this, the University of Chicago (who also publish the Encyclopedia Britannica) published a 54-volume set called The Great Books of the Western World.

I own two sets. I have always been a fan of these books. So I plan to spend several columns discussing great Western literature. For our purposes, I will choose books that have contributed words or phrases to everyday speech. Along the way, I'll have to tell you some parts of the stories, so you'll learn about some vocabulary and some culture: a two-for-one deal!

Let's start with the earliest of the well-known epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer.

First, what is an epic? Originally, it was a long poem, usually centering on the action of a hero (or some heroes). By extension, the word has come to mean something grand and impressive. So we can talk about an "epic movie" or even "the epic development of Shenzhen."

Now, about Homer. Little is known of this early poet. In fact, many modern scholars doubt that he was a single human being at all, but rather, that the books he supposedly wrote were the products of a story-telling tradition, and the name "Homeros" was added later. The works bearing his name are so well known, however, that we even have an adjective: "Homeric," meaning "grand," "epic," or "heroic," like the characters in Homer's works.

In Lesson #01-209 we'll take a look at Homer's Iliad.


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer

Practice: Match the book title to its description below:

  1. The Dream of Red Mansions
  2. The Encyclopedia Britannica
  3. The Grapes of Wrath
  4. The Great Gatsby
  5. Huckleberry Finn
  6. The Journey to the West
  7. Moby-Dick
  8. The Outlaws of the Marsh
  9. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
  10. The Scarlet Letter

  1. Herman Melville's novel about Captain Ahab chasing a Great White Whale
  2. John Steinbeck's novel about migrant workers moving to California in the 1930s
  3. Wu Cheng'en's novel about a monk and his three companions traveling to India to get Buddhist scriptures
  4. Nathanael Hawthorne's novel about an unmarried mother in a very religious community
  5. Cao Xueqin's novel about the relationships between numerous families
  6. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel about a charismatic con-man in the 1920s
  7. Mark Twain's novel about a boy and a runaway slave drifting down the Mississippi River
  8. Shi Nai'an's novel about 108 Robin Hood-types
  9. A multi-volume work containing a huge number of articles about "every" subject
  10. Luo Guanzhong's novel about three sworn friends and their actions during war

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 12, 2009

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. e; 2. i; 3. b; 4. f; 5. g; 6. c; 7. a; 8. h; 9. j; 10. d