Book Look - Reading Herodotus: A Guided Tour Through the Wild Boars, Dancing Suitors, and Crazy Tyrants of The History, by Debra Hamel
How can you *not* enthusiastically endorse a history book that cites S. Morgenstern’s classic “The Princess Bride” as its inspiration? Here’s the author, Debra Hamel, explaining her intent in this book’s introduction:
“What’s needed with Herodotus, it occurred to me, is a ‘good parts’ version of [Herodotus’] ”The History”, a book for the everyday reader who’s unlikely to slog through all the ‘begats’ to get to the juicy bits. Hence this volume, a loose retelling of Herodotus’ account, with obscure references explained and the boring bits left out.”
I believe that William Goldman would wholly approve of Hamel’s final product. Here, in brief, are four reasons why you should really, really, really consider reading this book:
Context. Herodotus is considered to be the “Father of History.” What’s hilarious is discovering what passed for “history” back in 500 BC … a glorious mish-mash of actual factual accounts, hearsay, superstition, “spin”, and scurrilous gossip. While never wavering from her mission statement – to provide a thorough albeit heavily edited version of Herodotus’ original text – Hamel leverages her insights into ongoing Herodotus-related scholarship to provide intriguing insights into the truths (and untruths) underlying even the most outlandish tales.
The History. Herodotus’ histories focus on events related to the Peloponnesian Wars (that’s Greece vs. Persia for the most part, for those who aren’t up on their classical warfare). Sure, you can see “The 300” in theaters, but reading about the Battle of Thermopolae by a guy who had it from veterans who were *actually there* is waaaaaay cooler. Hamel does a great job of wading through all of Herodotus’ less-than-riveting prose devoted to numbers of troops, supply routes, engineering projects, etc. in order to present brisk, entertaining, highly-accessible accounts of each significant battle.
The Chapter Titles. The book is broken into short, highly readable chapters with titles that can’t fail to intrigue: “Sex and the City of Babylon,” “Horny Goats and Medicinal Urine,” “Madness and Mummies,” “Earless Imposters and Randy Mounts: The Early Reign of Darius the Great,” “Cannibals, Flying Snakes, and Gold Digging Ants,” “Severed Breasts and Wormy Deaths: The Persian Expedition to Libya.” Honestly, how could you NOT want to read on? Hamel’s sense of humor and ever-vigilant eye for irony brings out all the innate entertainment value in Herodotus’ accounts.
Bragging Rights. Sure, after finishing this you still won’t be able to say that you’ve actually read Herodotus, but what’s to stop you from making erudite comments in company and letting people *assume* you’ve read his whole, massive work in the original? (You to person you want to impress: “You know, if General Petraeus had only read his Herodotus, he might have been a little more cognizant of how easy it is to lose the favor of adoring masses.”)
Sure, reading “Reading Herodotus” isn’t all roses and lollipops and stirring battle speeches and triremes zipping over the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean in search of glory. The vast scope of Herodotus’ original text means that even Hamel can’t entirely spare us the cacophony of dozens of similar-sounding anecdotes, hundreds of place names that require no less than three maps to keep sorted, and what feels like thousands of character names, few of which clock in at less than 10 characters (Alcybiades, Intaphernes, etc.). Yes, you’ll have to work a little to keep from getting lost. But Hamel’s done so much of the heavy lifting, I doubt many readers will mind.
The #1 thing parents can do to help their child be successful in life? Without a doubt, the answer is: inspiring in them a love of reading. A love of reading will not only help them be successful in school, but will also turn them into live-long learners with a deep and abiding understanding of the richness of the world in which they live.
I wish I could claim the following list as my own, but I can't. I've lifted the whole thing from Book by Book, by Michael Dirda. (An excellent book of essays about literature and life, by the way.) But the list is such a good one, I've taken the liberty of transcribing it here.
- Read aloud to your children. Joan Aiken once said, "If you're not prepared to read to your children an hour a day, you shouldn't have any."
- Read yourself. Grown-ups often pay lip service to the joys of reading, but do the kids see you watching TV or do they see you with a book in your hands": Here is the litmus test: How often have you said to your child, "Just a minute, I want to finish this chapter"?
- Fill your house with print. There should be paperbacks, comics, magazines, and newspapers everywhere the children look. Books should be a part of a family's daily life, not something special. Ideally, each member of the household should have his or her own bookcase.
- Visit the library and bookstore regularly. Allow the kids to check out whatever they want, even if you find it sophomoric and immature. After all, children are immature. A trip to a bookstore can be a family adventure, and even hesitant readers usually enjoy purchasing a shiny new book of their very own
- Ask older kids to read to younger siblings. This will yield numerous benefits: It will improve the older child's reading skills and diction, show the younger that reading is fun for people other than adults, and encourage the two siblings to, as they say, bond
- Limit TV, video, and computer time. Don't be too draconian here: a house rule of no television after 8-9pm during the school week might be sensible, with some leeway for special programs. Your goal is not to deprive the child of television so much as to make him or her indifferent to it. Ideally, evenings should be a time for reading, homework, quiet games, conversation. I know, I know: I'm a dreamer
- Encourage any reading interest - no matter how frivolous or unacademic you find it. If your daughter enjoys one Nancy Drew mystery, buy or check out a couple more. If she likes learning about constellations or witches or the Civil War, make sure you pick up books and pamphlets about them. As with anything, you start where you are. The child who hunches over the Hardy Boys today will read Agatha Christie tomorrow and Crime and Punishment a few years after - if he or she is encouraged. The worst thing you can do is to ignore or denigrate a child's taste
- Don't harp on "good books." Remember how boring you thought required school reading was? Nothing kills what pleasure a novel might offer like ordering a kid to read it just because it's won a Newbery or Coretta Scott King award. Roald Dahl pointed out that what really matters in children's books is that they be so entertaining that they "convince the child that reading is great fun"
- Ask librarians and booksellers for advice. These professionals nearly always know what works and what doesn't
- Talk about books with your kids. Mention your own reading. Draw their attention to items in the Sunday paper. Ask them which is their favorite Lemony Snicket or Judy Blume title - and why
- Encourage kids to write. By writing stories, journals, letters, what have you, young people learn about the structure of prose, the flow of sentences, the importance of charm, and the nature of argument
- Take kids to meet writers at libraries and bookstores. A book becomes even more special when it's inscribed by a favorite author. On such occasions, a YA novelist can suddenly possess the glamor of a rock star or celebrity athlete
- Give the kids time with books. Allow them to stay up late reading, or to spend Saturday morning in bed with a novel. Boys and girls don't always need to be out and about; quiet time with a book ought to be fostered, encouraged - and not just a paltry 15 minutes or so. Offer a plate of cookies and the kids may settle down for a couple of hours.