Weekend Reading: Under Review

In case you missed it, the big online Classics debate this week has been about book reviews.

It was sparked by a review, written by John Henderson from Cambridge, of The Alternative Augustan Age (a book which actually looks very useful to those of us who keep coming back to all things Augustan….!). The review, written for BMCR, polarised classicists on Twitter.  Lots of people condemned it as ‘ridiculous’, ‘infuriating’, ‘opaque’, ‘performative’, ‘arrogant’, ‘sneering hieroglyphics for the in crowd’, and offensive to anyone who sees accessibility as a priority. Others talked about it being ‘informal’, ‘creative’, ‘different’, ‘demanding’, ‘expert’ and ‘a welcome change from cookie cutter banality’.

Have a look for yourself – you know you want to…!

This is not a particularly new debate. John Henderson is a well-known classicist who has been writing reviews (and other things) like this for a very long time, and he’s no stranger to this kind of stylistic controversy.

So while the argument centred on a single academic, it was not so much about that academic personally, but rather about what Classics should be, and what the role of book reviews ought to be within it.

Part of the issue is the definition and aim of a book review. Is it to showcase the reviewed or to showcase the reviewer? And is a more straightforward review that describes the content of a book in clear terms always preferable to a more thought-provoking review that throws around lots of different ideas?

Perhaps the problem is that there’s no single agreed definition of a ‘book review’ out there in the world. By coincidence, I’ve been combing through module resources this week, and came across a link to this ‘Book Review’ guide for research students. It tries to combat the vagueness of the genre by breaking it down into three different registers: summary reviews, opinion reviews, and scholarly reviews. Applying those categories, it could be argued that Henderson is combining the ‘scholarly review’ with the ‘opinion review’ in a context where the ‘scholarly/summary review’ combination is usually preferred. But to be honest, I’m not sure that helps!

I find myself struggling with this, because I enthusiastically agree with both sides. I enjoyed the review – it made me laugh, and it made me remember things I’d forgotten, and it made me go and look stuff up. And there are bits I still don’t get, and I’m saving those for a rainy day. For me it’s like a crossword puzzle. I’m very bad at crosswords – but I do enjoy them!

If I were the author of the book being reviewed, though, I might find it infuriating. If I were a student trying to decide whether or not to read the book, I might find it useless – or even offensively cryptic.

People are right to argue that reviews like this don’t do anything to make Classics more accessible – and that’s always my own priority. I make an effort to write straightforward and clear book reviews that will be of practical use to people. So I think my response to the Henderson review is that, on a professional level as a teacher, I disapprove.

But on a personal level I’ve printed it out and will have fun mulling it over next time I have a quiet afternoon!

In happy news this week, Hellene School Travel is officially up and running! Do check out their website – it’s very pretty. There’s also a pun-spotting competition, if you want to join in the fun:

We’ve included several apposite Classics Pictorial Puns & Sources within the Contact/Addenda Sections. You could win a £100.00 Book Token (wine or chocolate if you prefer) by successfully identifying and e-mailing the references to – Sarah@helleneschooltravel.com

The Hellene School Travel Team includes Sarah and Jamie, who’ve both contributed to Comfort Classics, and Carolyn, who’s on my interview list for next week!

They’ve certainly been through a lot lately. Sarah and John said, ‘It’s been a hideous roller coaster of a year which has taught us an awful lot about ourselves and others. Folk really do show their true character in adversity. Whether we’ll be as successful second time around, we know not. We do owe a huge obligation to Agents, colleagues, friends and customers, all of whom have been SO supportive – especially those abroad earning precisely zilch in the past seven months.’

Their determination to rebuild is an inspiration, and it’s lovely to see things starting to turn around for them.

Right – back to the marking! It’s that time of year again, when all the assignments start coming in at once. Wishing you all a civilised half-term week!

This week from around the classical internet


Netflix’s Barbarians – Radio Times

2,000-year-old cat picture – BBC

Comfort Classics

Comfort Classics: Helen McVeigh

Comfort Classics: Ben Cassell

Comfort Classics: Hannah Clements-Patrick

Comfort Classics: Georgina Homer

Comfort Classics: Marika Strano

Thanks to Tony for this!

Comment and opinion

Ten years of Sententiae Antiquae – Sententiae Antiquae

Dionysius and Vogons – Sphinx

Heraclitus: life is flux – Ancient History Encyclopedia

Giving back stolen artefacts – Atlas Obscura

Mythology and religion – Tales of Time Forgotten

Roman skin colour – Ad astra per mundum

Thoughts on Troy: Total WarAncient World Magazine

The pitfalls of pith helmets – Hyperallergic

Critical Race Theory and Classics – Cambridge Schools Classics Project Blog

Podcasts, video and other media

Pliny’s Haunted House (with Tony Keen) – Creepy Classics

What makes a monster? (with Liz Gloyn) – Classical Wisdom Speaks

Frustrations and poor decisions – The History of Ancient Greece

The story of Chesters Roman Fort – English Heritage

The Battle of Philippi – The Ancients

Book for Armand D’Angour’s webinar on Ancient Greek Music – Classics For All

One thought on “Weekend Reading: Under Review

  1. Nice little project piece for a sort of 21st C. Septuagint to work on – knocking out as widely accessible as possible a rendering of the original into the common tongue! Good luck to them reaching a committee consensus on that one 😁 [render /ˈrɛndə/ : melt down (fat) in order to clarify it] 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

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