In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
Corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
Adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
Ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen!
– Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.1-4
Classic, klas’ik, n. An author of the first rank; a writer whose style is pure, correct and refined; primarily, a Greek or Roman author of this character; a literary production of the first class or rank; the classics, specifically the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Classicist, klas’i-sist, n. One versed in the classics.
When we talk about the classics, there are (at least) two notions in play. The first is a judgement of quality and style, the second a technical term for the output of a specific time and place in history. I received my university training in the latter, studying the literature of Greece and (especially) Rome, and so I call myself a Classicist. Yet, after years of scoffing at libraries and booksellers who use the term “classics” to denote such modern literature as Austen and Dickens, I’ve finally come to accept that my definition might need expanding. (If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.) Welcome to my attempt at expansion, my journey to becoming a more ‘modern’ Classicist.
In the quote with which I have opened this post, and with which Ovid opens his epic poem Metamorphoses, the poet describes an eternal song of forms changed by the gods into new bodies. Ovid’s subject matter is literal transformation, but he might also be talking about the continuous chain of literature and literary reception, the ideals of genre and style constantly developed by the gods of inspiration and embodied in a variety of different texts throughout the ages. On such a reading, I have to confess, I have spent far too much time on the opening bars (as well as far too much time staying in bars until they close), when there’s so much more of the song still to hear.
As someone who thrives under pressure, and who currently finds himself a recent graduate with far too much time on his hands, I’m setting myself a challenge. I want to expand my knowledge, not just of post-Classical classic novels, but of some of the greatest films and plays I can access; I might even expand into other types of art in the future. Broadly speaking, I’ll be aiming to post reviews for one novel each week, and one film and one play each fortnight. For the novels, I’ll be working my way through a list of the “100 best novels written in English” (starting in the late 17th century) compiled by The Guardian in 2015, and through the “All-TIME 100 Novels” of TIME Magazine (ranging from 1923 to 2005), while also reviewing some of (what I perceive as) the greatest works in genres which are often considered too populist or low to produce classics. I’m far more of a reader than I am a movie-buff, and I don’t want to be too straight-jacketed by an esoteric selection that I don’t have the taste to fully appreciate at the moment; so as well as the selective “All-TIME 100 Movies” list (also by TIME), I’ll be working from the massive 2008 Empire list of the “500 Greatest Movies of All Time” (focusing on the top 200). For the plays, you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare, at least for the beginning, interspersed with some works by Christopher Marlowe; I’ll be working from text rather than performance. I will have read or watched some of these works already, I’m sure, but for the most part, I’ll be coming at them fresh.
The last type of text on which I would like to focus is perhaps the most controversial. For the first time in my life, I plan to make an effort to read the Holy Bible, a text which has probably had at least as large an influence on English literature as any Greco-Roman text; I’ll be reading the English translation of the King James Version (KJV), at a rate of one book each week, not necessarily in any fixed order. I say controversial because, regardless of my own religious beliefs (or more properly, lack thereof), I can understand how offensive it would be to many for me to review a religious text in the same way as I would review a secular work of fiction, and so my format for these ‘reviews’ will be truncated and will not attempt to offer the same degree of analysis.
Finally, I’m liable to scatter this blog with various other musings on my life, the arts, and interesting aspects of Greco-Roman antiquity. I’ll try not to be too self-indulgent: primarily, this is a blog about reviews (although that might well change if I progress on to graduate study as I intend). Thank you for accompanying me; I hope you enjoy the ride.