Odysseus, according to Jay Mendelsohn, is not much of a hero. “He’s a liar and he cheated on his wife!” he explains to his son, Daniel, who happens to be a Classicist in the midst of teaching a seminar on The Odyssey at Bard. At the age of 81, the elder Mendelsohn decides to audit his son’s class, reading Homer for the first time and also for the first time witnessing his son at work.
A Father, a Son, and an Epic
In An Odyssey, Mendelsohn describes teaching, and learning from his father, as they embark on their own epic journey to unpack the famous poem, a voyage that is, at times, far from smooth sailing. They take a literal voyage as well – a “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise from modern Turkey to Greece, which fails to reach its (and Odysseus’s) final destination of Ithaca – a failure that Mendelsohn describes as “perhaps the most Odyssean aspect of our educational cruise.” Soon after, his father becomes ill, and the two must embark on another journey together – only one of them reaching the final destination.
Reading becomes an act of communion for Mendelsohn and his father, but for many readers revisiting great or challenging works is a solitary pursuit that puts them ultimately closer not to another living being, but a book’s author. For more stories of voyages taken through the pages of beloved books, check out these memoirs.
Many of us, if we’re being honest, will admit to not having gotten through George Eliot’s doorstopper Middlemarch even once. New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead has read the whole thing, not just once but several times over. The novel, which she first read as a young woman, became a totem, following her through love and marriage, across continents, and remains a favorite. In this memoir she traces her own obsession with the book while investigating the life of its author and the story of how it came to be written.
One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages
What exasperated parent hasn’t, at one point, told a bored, whiny child “go read the dictionary”? Not many kids actually take you up on that suggestion, but Ammon Shea decided to try. In one year, he read all twenty volumes (more than 21,000 pages) of the Oxford English Dictionary, and here devotes a chapter to each letter, listing his favorite words along with a history of dictionaries and some thoughts on what it is to be a person who loves words, and the books that contain them.
A Memoir in Books
Nabokov, James, Fitzgerald, Austen, all names familiar from any high school or college course in Western Literature. Also all authors banned under Islamic law in Iran in the mid-1990s. College professor Nafisi made the dangerous decision to read their work anyway, inviting a group of seven women into her home to read these classic books and discuss how the stories of Daisy, Humbert, and Elizabeth Bennett reflected their own experiences. As the political situation grew more oppressive, the secret meetings became one of the only places the women could talk about their lives, making reading literature a true act of resistance.
Alain de Botton
Has anyone really read all seven volumes of Proust’s A la Rechercher du Temps Perdu? Alain de Botton has, but that doesn’t mean he thinks you need to. He does, however, think Proust has a lot to tell us about the human condition and how to live in the modern age – despite the fact that he died a century ago. In this brief volume, de Botton turns to Proust’s most famous work for advice on how to get along with others, how to lead a productive life, and why not to worry too much if you can’t attain happiness. Part literary criticism, part biography, and part self-help, the book is really a love letter to a writer, and a book, who changed the author’s life.