When Everything We Read Applies: Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and Cicero’s Pro Archia

“For unless I had convinced myself from my earliest years, on the basis of lessons derived from all I had read, that nothing in life is really worth having except moral decency and reputable behaviour, and that for their sake all physical tortures and all perils of death and banishment must be held of little account, I should never have been able to speak up for the safety of you all in so many arduous clashes, or to endure these attacks which dissolute rogues launch against me every day.”
—”Pro Archia,”  from Selected Political Speeches by Cicero (Penguin)

It has not been the happiest of spring breaks. Spring turned into winter, and we didn’t get out much.  Oh, well, I had the opportunity during the cold snap to reread Cicero’s Pro Archia and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.

And here’s a bracing discovery.  Everything I read, from Cicero’s defense of a Greek poet’s Roman citizenship to Trollope’s satirical novel The Way We Live Now, applies to the political situation.  Naturally, the disgraceful political events in Washington D.C., if indeed our nation’s capital is still there and not at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, are at the back of our minds.  It’s not exactly comforting, but it’s obviously true that such struggles are centuries old.

I know that many of you have read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, and indeed I wrote a short post about it in 2014.  According to the introduction of the Oxford edition by John Sutherland, Trollope wrote this superb satire in reaction to the dishonesty and corruption he observed in London when he returned after a year and a half in “the colonies.”

Trollope’s delineation of the  relationship between financial scams and politics is still very pertinent. The villain, Mr. Melmotte, a financier, floats a fraudulent railway company by selling shares for a nonexistent enterprise, and not only grows richer but buys his way into Parliament.  And Trollope’s characterization of Mr. Melmotte applies to more than one politician these days.

 He knew nothing of any one political question which had vexed England for the last half century,—nothing whatever of the political history which had made England what it was at the beginning of that half century … He had probably never read a book in his life. He knew nothing of the working of parliament, nothing of nationality,—had no preference whatever for one form of government over another, never having given his mind a moment’s trouble on the subject. He had not even reflected how a despotic monarch or a federal republic might affect himself, and possibly did not comprehend the meaning of those terms. But yet he was fully confident that England did demand and ought to demand that Mr. Melmotte should be returned for Westminster. This man was Mr. Melmotte himself.

Uncannily apt, isn’t it?

And then there’s Cicero’s Pro Archia, translated in the Penguin edition of Selected Political Speeches as “In Defence of the Poet Aulus Lincinius Archias.”  I read the Latin, but the Penguin is accessible.

Here’s the background:  In 64 B. C. a law of the tribune Giaus Papius expelled non-citizens of Rome.  (Does this sound familiar?)  Cicero’s speech was written in defense of the Greek poet Archias, who was accused of not being a Roman citizen. But Cicero’s brilliant speech is best known for its long laudation of reading, rhetoric, and, in short, the liberal arts.  Without books, poetry, and the study of rhetoric, Cicero says he could not successfully defend clients.  Archias was one of his teachers.

How could I find material, do you suppose, for the speeches I make every day on such a variety of subjects, unless I steeped my mind in learning? How could I endure the constant strains if I could not distract myself from them by this means? Yes, I confess I am devoted to the study of literature. If people have buried themselves in books, if they have used nothing they have read for the benefit of their fellow-men, if they have never displayed the fruits of such reading before the public eye, well, let them by all means be ashamed of the occupation. But why, gentlemen, should I feel any shame? Seeing that not once throughout all these years have I allowed myself to be prevented from helping any man in the hour of his need because I wanted a rest, or because I was eager to pursue my own pleasures, or even because I needed a sleep!

So here’s to the power of books!  The history is there, in novels, speeches, and poetry. And life is always, always, always a struggle.

What to Read on a Plane, or Which Pocket?


Which pocket?

I don’t travel much, but when I do I travel light.

So after I packed a couple of turtlenecks and a cozy sweatshirt/pajamas ensemble that I WOULD wear down to the hotel lobby when I couldn’t get the WiFi to work, I decided what to read on the plane.

The Nook was probably all I needed.

But what if the Nook broke?

“Maybe I should take this book?  Or that book?”  I asked my husband.

He didn’t know what I would like to read on the plane.

I have a big bag with many pockets.  I finally packed a mystery by Canadian writer Louise Penny, Still Life.

And I packed a Dorothy Sayers.

And I brought Cicero’s De Senectute (About Old Age), a Latin text with vocabulary and notes, because I know from experience that if pills (my first choice) fail Cicero WILL put me to sleep.

What I didn’t count on was reading Cicero on the plane.

Here’s what happened.

I was very bookish for four hours when a plane was delayed.

Then I got on two planes and read through the short flights.


What I read on my Nook.

In Washington, D.C.,  I was busy with my friend Ellen going to the Kennedy Center, the Folger Theater, and the National Gallery.  At night I blogged and read Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City on my Nook.

But on the way home I suddenly needed a mystery.

I needed it because I didn’t want to talk to my seatmate.

Do you have “grandkids?” This woman did.  If you do, please SHUT UP about it on the plane.  We’re bored, we’re Zero Population Growth, and we can tell from the sound of your voice that you’re bored, too.

Looking at the woman, who was probably my age, I thought, Oh no, TELL me you didn’t spend your vacation babysitting.

You’re in the prime of life.

For God’s sake, just go to Washington, D.C., New York,  or even Anchorage, Alaska.

No, she had flown to a faraway city so she could babysit for her children so they could go somewhere.

She sounded desperate. And so sad.

She might have been my friend under other circumstances.

But I was really tired.

And so I refrained from chat.

I reached for my mystery.

I knew what pocket it was in.

I could only find Cicero.

The mystery had sunk down to a pocket within a pocket.

And so I read Cicero.

Yup.  Flipping back to the notes and the glossary.

Cicero de senectuteCicero wrote this philosophical work in 44 or 45 B.C., and dedicated it  to his famous friend Atticus.  In the “dialogue,” Cato the Elder tells Scipio and Laelius that old age isn’t so bad.  He’s Stoic about it.

He tells them, “For to those who have no resources to live well and happily, every age is heavy.  But nothing that the law of nature brings can seem bad to those who seek all good things in themselves.” (Quibus enim nihil est in ipsis opis ad bene beateque vivendum, eis omnis aetas gravis est; qui autem omnia bona a se ipsi petunt, eis nihil potest malum videri, quod naturae necessitas afferat.)

It did make me feel better.

It was calming.

I’m not quite old yet, but soon.

And so I have time to do everything I still want to do.

Not that I have a list.

But I do seek the good in myself.

By the way, it’s LIVE LIKE A STOIC WEEK.  Go to the website for directions and read the Stoic Handbook.  I intend to read something by a Stoic later this week and post about it.

Maybe on Thanksgiving!

In Pious Memory margery sharpTHE BOOK I SHOULD HAVE BROUGHT ON THE PLANE:  In Margery Sharp’s light comedy, In Pious Memory, Mrs. Prelude, the wife of a famous financier, survives a plane crash, but her husband does not.  Later, she is unsure if she has correctly identified his body; and she and her youngest daughter, Lydia, fantasize that he is still alive.  Lydia and her cousin set off on a bicycle trip to look for her father in France.  It is funny, though a bit Disneyish.  Perfect plane reading. Not very good, but entertaining.


Mirabile Considers the Reading Life, Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet, Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, & Nook Discrimination at “Web Proof!”

Woman Reading by Gyula Bencz

“Woman Reading” by Gyula Bencz

I have a very odd reading life.

I usually have six books on the go. This eclectic style of reading seems to go with blogging.

I call it  “reading like a bookseller.” The best booksellers have the “multiple reading” habit so they can chat to customers about the latest books.

My most cherished ambition is to own a bookstore and sit around and chat like the charming Linda in  Nancy Mitford’s  The Pursuit of Love.  When she takes over the Communist bookstore every weekend so the Comrade who runs it can get drunk,

An extraordinary transformation would then occur.  The books and tracts which mouldered there month after month, getting damper and dustier until at last they had to be thrown away, were hurried into the background, and their place taken by Linda’s own few but well-loved favorites.  Thus for Whither British Airways? was substituted Round the World in Eighty Days, Karl Marx, the Formative Years was replaced by The Making of a Marchioness, and The Giant of the Kremlin by Diary of a Nobody, while A Challenge to Coal -Owners made way for King Solomon’s Mines.

I can imagine a similar transformation if, say, Leonard Riggio became my best friend and I worked at Barnes and Noble.  My charming, humorous, eclectic favorites would sit on a shelf labeled “Charming, Humorous, Eclectic favorites”:  Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred, H. G. Wells’ Kipps, Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, Julie Hecht’s Do the Window Open?, Nora Johnson’s Coast to Coast:  A Family Memoir, and Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year.

A former student was the most personable bookseller at Borders and was also a “multiple reader.”  The Borders culture, he explained, was based on staff interactions with the customers:  he recommended George R. R. Martin’s novels, though I never got into them, and quoted the opening sentence of The Shadow of the Wind to persuade customers they ought to read it.  (“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”). When I bought the new translation of Kristin Lavransdatter, he said he’d always intended to read it.  (I told him he might prefer The Master of Hestviken.)

My fellow bloggers sometimes complain about the strain of multiple reads (i.e., reading like a bookseller). I ask myself, Where is the pressure coming from? Why are we reading so many books?  Are we reading to blog?  Are we blogging to read?  Are we reading for our readers?

It occurs to me we are readers of the 21st century:  we have grown used to interruptions and juggling many tasks at a time. And so we organize our multiple readings in our online writings.  Mirabile Dictu is the equivalent of the journal I used to keep.   I write a few bookish posts every week, but I positively discourage readers from expecting me to “review” books every day.

Ursule Mirouet by BalzacDespite the fact that I am plugged into the internet, despite the fact that my Nook now interrupts me when I have a new email, despite the fact that I have read hundreds of book reviews this year, I go through long periods when I ignore modern life and contemporary books altogether.  I have read many books by Balzac this year, though I have blogged about only a few of them.  Ursule Mirouet is the oddest of his novels I’ve read to date, and definitely the worst.  It begins, as is typical with Balzac’s novels, with a long, rambling exposition of the town, Nemours, and the many branches of an anxious family who worry that the wealthy agnostic Dr. Minoret will leave all his money to his goddaughter Ursule.  At the beginning of the novel, when the non-believer Minoret accompanies Ursule to Mass, the incident triggers malicious gossip about her power over his money.   But  we learn that Minoret converted to Catholicism after a friend challenges him to open his mind to mesmerism: a medium in a trance was able to describe exactly what Ursule was doing back in the village, and when he checked with her, every detail of was correct.

Balzac was a believer in spiritualism and mesmerism, and this very odd novel combines the typical inheritance and thwarted love themes with elements of supernatural communications and interventions.  Donald Adamson says in the introduction to the 1976 Penguin:

To those who poke fun at Balzac’s belief in animal magnetism it should equally be stressed that Mesmer’s theories produced a sensation toward the end of the eighteenth century and commanded the support of many intelligent men.  Balzac merely echoes the opinion of his many contemporaries when claiming in Ursule Mirouet that Mesmer’s findings would revolutionize therapeutic medicine and that ‘rationalist’ methods of healing were ill-founded.

Ursule is fascinating as an example of Balzac’s belief in the supernatural, but it is not a very good novel.

This summer I reread Cicero’s beautifully-written philosophical treatise on the immortality of souls, Somnium Scipionis (Scipio’s Dream) .  Honestly, despite the rhetorical beauty of the language and the utter simplicity of the doctrine, it is trite:  the New Age ’70s bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull meets Plato’s Republic.

But even if you read it in English–I read it in Latin, but have copied a few English paragraph from the Fordham University site below–a little of the power of Cicero’s graceful, deftly balanced prose comes through.  Scipio Aemilianus, military tribune of the fourth legion, spends an evening with King Masinissa, an old family friend, in Africa, who reminisces about his grandfather, Scipio Africanus, hero of the Second Punic War.  This dialogue inspires a dream of a conversation with Scipio Africanus.

 And during all this time the old man spoke of nothing but Africanus, all whose actions, and even remarkable sayings, he remembered distinctly. At last, when we retired to bed, I fell in a more profound sleep than usual, both because I was fatigued with my journey, and because I had sat up the greatest part of the night.

Here I had the following dream, occasioned, as I verily believe, by our preceding conversation—for it frequently happens that the thoughts and discourses which have employed us in the daytime, produce in our sleep an effect somewhat similar to that which Ennius writes happened to him about Homer, of whom, in his waking hours, he used frequently to think and speak.

Simple and down-to-earth, but you really need the Latin.

I promise to catch up with “bookish writing” soon.  Summer is winding down.

And now for my experience with contemporary books.

There is a certain  website where you can sign up and request digital advance copies of new books from publishers.  I will refer to this site as “Web Proofs!”(its real name is something similar, and many of you bloggers probably know it).

This summer the Web Proofs! publicist sent me a catalogue.  Before I knew it, I had requested seven books to review at Mirabile Dictu, figuring I would be okayed for one.  I was astonished when I was okayed for all except for the one I wanted, Jonathan Lethem’s forthcoming novel.

But do you think it was easy to download these free books on my Nook?  No, it was impossible!

If you have a Kindle, you can download the books directly from Web Proofs!  If you don’t you have to download Adobe Digital Editions.  Fine.  Then you have to plug in your Nook and download from Adobe Digital Editions.

Transatlantic colum mccannIt didn’t work.  Both my husband and I tried repeatedly.  A message appeared saying that I was not approved to copy the contents.

I tried to read Colum McCann’s beauitfully-written novel  Transatlantic on Adobe Digital editions on my computer, but it gave me a headache.

I went out and bought the book.

All the books I was approved for expired on their expiration dates.  Sorry, publicists, I’ve failed you again!

My Funny-Sad Diary of the ’70s & How to Keep a Book Journal

Long ago, in a parallel universe in the ’70s, I kept a  charming diary.  It is the only diary I wrote that is enjoyable reading, and I would gladly burn my later sad-sack diaries, except that burning one’s journals in a bonfire is banned by the EPA (air emissions).

My girly vinyl-and-silk '70s diary

My girly vinyl-and-silk ’70s diary

Much of this charming, funny, girly vinyl-and-silk diary is about my student days.  I described the politics of the classics department, flirtations and friendships, my charming soon-to-be-ex-husband’s extravagant dinner parties, a never-ending paper on Jane Eyre, and going to bars to listen to Greg Brown (good) or Chickie and the Dipsticks (not so good).

Here is my mocking inscription on the first page of the diary.


A Useful Document for Janitors
Aspiring to be Classicists.
One woman’s story.
Her trials and tribulations.
Outer struggles with
clogged toilets reflect
inner mental crises.

I had a satiric outlook, but also described the ups and downs of everyday life.  My ex- was the most charming person I knew, but he and his friends were hard drinkers. We once spent Thanksgiving with an alcoholic friend who had lost his English professor job and who became drunkenly abusive to his wife at dinner.  But my witty husband, who, even when drunk, brought out the best in everyone, managed to divert him by describing something on PBS as “the Stratford-on-Avon picture torture.”   We all laughed, and the friend calmed down.

Occasionally I wrote about books.  Well, I must admit, I wrote about books all the time.  I loved Anna Karenina, and wrote reams about Levin, who was my favorite character.  I wrote about all kinds of books:  Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, Dickens’s Hard Times, Cicero’s Pro Caelio (I was very indignant that Clodia Metelli, an older woman, was blamed for Caelius’s  problems), Euripides’s Medea, Colette’s Break of Day, and a trashy French romance series, the Angelique books.

Jane Austen’s Emma was my favorite book, but  I wrote disapprovingly of Pride and Prejudice.

Aug. 22

Am writing at the laundromat, drinking Pelican Punch tea from a defective Gunsmoke thermos purchased at a garage sale.  It leaked all over my purse.

I am reading Pride and Prejudice, and am astonished that I could ever have read Jane Austen as a satirist.  For the first half of the book Elizabeth Bennet looks critically at the world; in the second half she learns her mistake and accepts traditional propriety.


There you have it:  Gunsmoke and Pride and Prejudice.

Surprisingly, my views on P& P have not changed much. I enjoy Lizzie’s sharpness and wit, but the last part of P&P still annoys me.  Lizzie doesn’t fall in love with Darcy until she sees his property, and Darcy, like so many Austen heroes, is a stiff, even if he’s played by Colin Firth.  Could anyone really fall in love with Darcy/Knightley/etc.?

But I’m really here to talk about:


I no longer keep a personal diary, but I love my book journal.   I recently filled a book journal of five years of my reading.  I need to pick a new notebook for my book journal.

Big or little?

So far the format has been easy.  It’s a list.  And if I want to keep this format, I have two small notebooks that will work.

NOTEBOOK CHOICE #1:  The novelty notebook


This small notebook looks like a Penguin edition of On the Road.  I’m not a big Kerouac fan, but I saw the exhibit of his typed scroll of the manuscript at the University of Iowa Art Museum.  A guard had to warn me not to lean on the glass case.  I was fascinated by the scroll.

All I can remember about On the Road is that “the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.”  This struck me because I’m a Midwesterner.

NOTEBOOK CHOICE #2:  The Moleskine reporter’s notebook

IMG_2260I deliberately bought the reporter’s style notebook so I can flip it open and take notes.   You never know when Nick Hornby, Michael Stipe, or Dovegreyreader might walk down the street.  Of course I’d flip open my notebook and  ask them a few questions.

“Sir? Ma’am?”

NOTEBOOK CHOICE #3:  If I want to change the format to an actual journal with brief critiques of each book, this irresistible Miquerlius softbound journal might do.

IMG_2256No idea how many pages, but at least two-to-three hundred.

I bought most of my notebooks for occasional teaching, but as you know who know me from my previous blog, I have no students at the moment.  No one to study Wheelock or Catullus?  Dear me!

Do let me know what kind of notebook you use for your book journal.  And whether you list books or “journal.”