Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Buzz: Why Homer Matters

Marie Bolchazy, EdD, recommends popular modern fiction and nonfiction with ties to Classics.

Why Homer Matters
by Adam Nicolson

Did Homer create the Iliad and the Odyssey on his own or did he build upon the oral tradition of epic songs of battle and disaster? Is the Iliad based on the Trojan War or on a war that happened much before that? When did Homer live? And, is he one person or many? These fascinating questions are covered in Why Homer Matters.

When I started reading Why Homer Matters, I struggled to find Homer’s answers to life’s important questions: Do we love others as ourselves? Do we indulge ourselves? Do we surrender when we face seemingly insurmountable challenges? How much should we fight for our principles? Homer is silent on such questions. So why does he matter? Nicolson posits that Homer’s purpose is providing enlightenment on how things are and that a detailed engagement with pain and sorrow through poetry is the way we are enlightened. He believes that the wars happened so that the poems could happen. We find the wisdom that Homer provides gradually as we progress with the reading of this book. It should be read carefully and thoughtfully and with many time-outs for reflection.

The author is a polymath; his knowledge of so many fields of study is deep and breathtaking. In this book, he weaves in information on Michael Ventris, who deciphered Linear B, and Albert Lord, who researched the oral traditions possibly underlying Homer’s epics. He compares the ethic of the Greek warriors with the code of conduct of gangs in South Central LA and East St. Louis. Nicolson also gives a very personal account of his rape by a young man in the Syrian desert and relates the episode to Homer’s warriors. 

According to Nicolson, the Iliad is not an antiwar poem. Nicolson’s primary focus is on demonstrating that Homer’s writing provides us with a vade mecum, a kind of metaphysical guidebook on how to lead a meaningful life in a world of terrifying and wondrous changes. Homer does not provide guidance “if the lessons derived are the usefulness of violence, the lack of regret at killing, the subjection and selling of women, the extinction of all men in a surrendering city or the sense that justice resides in personal revenge.” Homer doesn't answer questions about how we should behave. Instead, Homer provides us with wisdom, a sense of reality, and an embrace of the complexity of life. By telling the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey, he helps us learn how we became who we are.

Marie Carducci Bolchazy, EdD
President, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers