The Book of Latin and Greek

November 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization (Hornblower, Simon and Spawforth, Antony, ed.)

I have been assured by reliable sources familiar with the matter that Video killed the Radio Star. Opinions differ, however, on who killed the Video Star – Robbie Williams blames Reality,  Jay Leno is more specific and points the needle of suspicion directly at Jersey Shore, but Drop Dead, Gorgeous  makes out a persuasive and very loud, if not particularly coherent, case that it was actually the Internet that perpetrated the foul deed. While investigations are ongoing, I think the Internet is at the very least what the police call a Person of Interest, because one thing is dead certain: the Internet has ‘previous’ in this regard (as I believe the industry phrase goes). The Internet, in fact, is wanted for questioning in the sordid matter of the demise of an entire genre of books, and so would have to produce a cast iron alibi in order to avoid being Rounded Up as a Usual Suspect.

The Video Star death, though undoubtedly a celebrity case, means very little to me: this post is about the other crime. I own several of these butchered books, these corpse-like corpuses, these tomes fit for tombs. They are dictionaries, travel books, restaurant guides, even a bookful of Beatles lyrics; books whose position of pre-eminence in my mental scheme of things has been severely compromised by the advent of Google. Leonard Maltin‘s 1999 Movie & Video Guide and Halliwell’s Who’s Who in the Movies languish lifelessly on my shelves, done in by iMDB. And then there is the book under review, a cut above the rest mentioned in the intellectual stakes, but rendered redundant with equal ruthlessness by Wikipedia.

The Internet as mass murderer - courtesy

These Henchmen of the Internet have employed two weapons in this war of extermination. The first is their ability to update content dynamically, which print media can’t. Restaurant guides are a case in point, as I am sure any of you would testify who have ever landed up armed with great expectations and a well-thumbed guide at the address of a purported purveyor of the best pierogi outside of Poland, only to find that it has long been supplanted by a cheesy pizza joint run by a fat guy named Charlie. The second weapon is a potent combination of search capabilities and hypertextual linkages, that make it possible for someone to zero in, in a matter of seconds, on one particular line in a 2000 page book, without the furrowed brows, pursed lips and furious flipping back and forth of yore. We’re all clickers now, not flippers. The Oxford Companion is a victim of the second weapon. With over 2,000 entries from Abortion to Zeus, it is not designed to be read from cover to cover at a sitting, or even a dozen sittings, but to be referred to and linked with other pieces of information. These, unfortunately, are activities that it cannot perform with the same felicity with which the Internet can.

Never mind. Meticulously put together by a team of 300 scholars under the editorial team of Hornblower and Spawforth and presented in alphabetical order, this is a splendid, staggering, awe-inspiring labor of love. The tone is authoritarian, informative and never dry, whether while tackling biographical subjects like Sophocles or Hannibal or mythological ones like Oedipus or Heracles, or even when commenting on other aspects of civilization, like housework, coinage and agrarian law. Sad but true, that only die-hard aficionados of classical studies, and other assorted utterly jobless types, especially ones with dodgy internet connections, will consider it a worthwhile pastime to reach out once in a while for this weighty volume and rummage through its pages in aimless search of information about the life of Cleisthenes or the role of sacrifice in Roman religion. Interesting, that schoolkids these days would rush, not to this book but to Wikipedia, to settle arguments regarding social attitudes towards homosexuality in ancient Greece. (Of course, the Wikipedia article in question dutifully names Hornblower, Simon and Spawforth, Antony as sources, but that’s besides the point). Incredibly fascinating, that the the Oxford University Press, an organization associated with the most rigorous pursuits of knowledge since the days of William Caxton and the first printed books, will soon be trumped by the new-fangled science of crowdsourced content. In balance, this democratization of knowledge is a very good thing, but instead of a few elitist people knowing a few esoteric things (but knowing them from the experts and so knowing them thoroughly), we now have a huge number of people knowing a huge number of things, but not with the same level of certainty, because you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet, even on Wikipedia. So there’s much that we’ve gained in this process, but we’ve paid a price as well.

Regardless of whether the change is for the good or the bad, one thing is certain. Most deaths are a pity, but some are genuine tragedies. The very thought of this book going out of print, and over a generation or so, ceasing to exist even in public memory – to me, that thought is heartbreaking. It feels as if an entire civilization is about to crumble and disappear into ashes and dust – and I don’t mean the Greek or Roman ones.


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§ 3 Responses to The Book of Latin and Greek

  • jjhiii24 says:

    Finding this entry on your blog gave me a wonderful sense of camaraderie and was reassuring in ways that are difficult to articulate, even though I spend a lot of my time with words.

    I’m not so sure that the internet will usurp the future of the printed book as much as many of those who love books seem to think it will, but I fully empathize with the feeling. It seems more likely to me that at some point the internet will come crashing down in some technological cataclysm in the future and only the people who possess the printed books will have a chance to perpetuate the knowledge gained over the centuries in which printed books held sway.

    On my own book shelves, I thought you might find it reassuring are the following Oxford volumes:

    The Oxford Book of English Verse – Edited by Christopher Ricks
    A History of the Ancient World – by Chester G. Starr
    The New Oxford Guide to Writing – by Thomas S. Kane
    The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War – Edited by Charles Townsend
    The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt – Edited by Ian Shaw
    The Oxford Atlas of World History – Patrick K. O’brien, General Editor

    I have an insatiable curiosity about the Ancient World and own a total of four volumes of World History and several varieties of Ancient History, most often concerning Ancient Egypt.

    I’m sorry it took me so long to find your page, but I’m a pretty busy guy these days, and there are so many great blogs here at WordPress that it’s pretty tough to keep up sometimes.

    Thanks for sending me scrambling around my office searching for all my Oxford volumes. It was actually fun trying to find them all amongst the several hundred books in my office……John H.

    • psriblog says:

      Thanks John – for checking out my blog, for taking the trouble to write a comment, and for all the kind words you had. I can see clearly that you are a kindred soul when it comes to books. Please do keep visiting!

      Best regards

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