Not for Classicists: Ann Patty’s Living with a Dead Language

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I am militantly outspoken.  And that’s why I seldom request review copies.

But I could not resist a review copy of a new book with the title Living With a Dead Language:  My Romance with Latin. I am a classicist and former Latin teacher.

Unfortunately, this account of a former editor’s study of Latin is riddled with errors.  (I  pray someone caught them before the publication date,  June 14.).

I felt my blood pressure go up as I read this poorly-edited book (there are more Latin errors than I used to see on my average students’ exams) and finally flung it aside.  Should I write about it or ignore it?  This is not a review but a heads-up:  you would be more likely to want to read Latin if you read Vigil’s Aeneid, a stunning epic poem, or Gilbert Highet’s beautifully-written, scholarly Poets in a Landscape, an eloquent book about the relationship of Catullus, Virgil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal to the Italian landscape.

So what is the point of this new Latin memoir?  The author, Ann Patty, an editor who discovered the best-selling writer V. C. Andrews (whom I haven’t read) and acquired the rights for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi  (which I have read), was a savvy figure in her field:  she even had her own imprint.   After she was forced to retire (she says 100 people were laid off in a single day)  the days seemed very long.  So she decided to audit Latin classes at Vassar and Bard.

It’s an interesting concept for a book:  it’s a pity it’s so poorly executed.  Well, Patty enjoyed Latin, though at first she wasn’t very good at it.  She got a 6 out of 10 on her first quiz and an 85 on her first test.  When a student offered a tip that flashcards were the key to learning a language,  the willful Patty bought index cards but devised her own system. And I gathered that is typical of Patty.

Always being a thrifty sort, I did not make them, as Camilla did, one word per card, Latin on one side, English on the to her, but rather squashed three words with translations on each card.  I left the back blank, figuring I would need it later.

Such inefficiency!  Tsk, tsk.  The point is to look at the English side of the card, say the Latin to yourself and/or write it down, then check the answer and spelling on the flip side. Later, you repeat the cards with Latin to English.

But that is nought compared to the errors in her exegesis of Latin grammar.

I’ll spare you a course in Latin, but just a few things:

Patty does not understand what is meant by the “mood” of a Latin verb.  She says there are three.  No,  there are four.

The four moods of the Latin verb (a verb is a word that describes an action or state of being) are:

1. the indicative –  states a fact.  EXAMPLE:  “She runs, she praises, she sings, she dances, etc.”

2. the subjunctive:  states a possibility.  EX.: “He may run, might run, would run, etc.”

3. the infinitive:  states the action of the verb without a subject. EX.: “To run, to praise, to sing, to dance, etc.”

4. the imperative:  a command.  EX.: “Run!” “Sing!”  “Dance!”

Patty claims there are only three Latin verb moods, but then hedges her bets with five add-ons:  she identifies  “indicative, subjunctive, imperative, plus the infinitive, participle, gerund, gerundive, and supine.” The last four are not verbs or moods of verbs:  the  participle and gerundive are verbal adjectives, and the gerund and supine are nouns.

All right, that’s enough grammar for you guys today!  But the editors needed a classicist to  proofread it.  She does say in the acknowledgements that “the Latin teacher Curtis Dozier: saved the  book from being a a mess of errors,”  but it is unclear whether he read the book, because she  also refers to him as summum magistrum (accusative case) rather than summus magister (the correct nominative case).

I don’t know whether she’s more naive or pompous.  Bits of autobiography are mixed haphazardly into the narrative.  Her observations on Roman literature are so pedestrian I was embarrassed.  I am shocked (yes, I’m a schoolmarm) that she uses SparkNotes to help her with Catullus.  And her tedious sections on etymology need editing, though I gather this is what interests her.

In short, this book needed much more work.  David Denby’s stunning Great Books, an account of his return to Columbia to study literary and philosophical masterpieces in core humanities classes, would have been a good model.

If any of you read it, please let me know what you think.  Perhaps if you don’t know Latin…?