Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Same Old Story

My son's 9th grade English class is reading The Odyssey by Homer.  So, since it was already on my list of books to read this year, I thought I would move it to the top of the list so that I could quiz him on it and get him ready for his tests.  He was thrilled!  That's a total lie.  But as an over-involved-borderline-helicopter parent, how could I resist?

The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, and his 10 year journey to return to his home of Ithica, after fighting for another 10 years in the Trojan war.  Homer is credited with writing the Odyssey, but there is some question as to whether he actually wrote the story, or if he composed it for relaying orally.  It is also not clear when Homer lived, with some historians saying that he lived as recently as the 7th century BC, and some as long ago as the 12th century BC. 

I didn't read The Odyssey when I was in high school, even though I went to the same school that my son now attends.  I guess that I am glad that the curriculum has changed within the last 25 years, but I have to wonder if it isn't due for some more updating.  This year, my son  will read To Kill a Mockingbird, The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, and A Raisin in the Sun.  The newest of these, Mockingbird, was published in 1960, when my parents were sophomores in high school.  Is there really nothing that 9th graders should be reading that has been published in the last 50 years?

A somewhat recent article in Slate that you can read by clicking here argues that students should read Black Swan Green by David Mitchell instead of Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.  I re-read Catcher a couple of years ago, and was actually surprised that it has maintained its relevance as well as it has, given  that it was published in 1951.  I agree that kids should read Black Swan Green, but maybe they should read both, and compare the styles and themes, rather than reading one or the other.  Black Swan  features a 13 year old, which might make it less attractive to high school students than Catcher, where Holden is a more street smart 17 year old.  Black Swan is also set in England, and uses a lot of British terms, which might be challenging for freshmen, but certainly no more challenging than The Odyssey.

The Odyssey is worth reading, if you haven't.  In the story, Odysseus tells portions of the story of the Trojan war, as well as the stories of his epic struggle to make it to his home.  Helen, Menelaus, and Agamemnon, who starred in Helen of Troy by Margaret George, all make appearances.  Although the story was told by Homer, we would not be reading it without the aid of translators.  The version that I read was D.C.H. Rieu's revision of his father, E.V. Rieu's translation, which was first available in the 1940s.  It was interesting to hear the son complain of the errors he thinks his father made, and see the corrections throughout the text.  One important difference is that the son tries to remain true to the original text by including references to anonymous gods.  For instance, a character might say "some god must have made me forget."  In the father's translation, he felt that this was silly, and deleted all references to unidentified gods.  So his character would have just said "I must have forgotten".  The blaming of the gods as being the reason behind any wrong thing that a character does seems more consistent with George's version of the story, and really seems more in keeping with the thinking of the time.  There I go again, citing historical fiction in support of my historical facts. 

This is the first book that I have finished for the Off the Shelf Challenge this year!  14 more to go.

Next Up:  LARP:  The Battle for Verona by Justin Calderone

Still Listening to:  A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

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