What Does It Mean to Be Well-Read?

In a “Book Clinic” column at The Guardian, the critic Robert McCrum recently addressed the question, “What does it mean to be well-read?”  And he does not bow to pop fiction or internet poetry as he lays out the tenets of the canon.

He writes,

I’d suggest that three kinds of reading define the well-read mind. First, I’d want to include the immortals from the classics of Greece and Rome: Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, Virgil, Plutarch, Ovid, Juvenal and Sappho…

Next, from the Anglo-American literary tradition, we can’t forget Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Byron, Austen, Keats, Dickens, Twain, Thoreau, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Spark, Beckett, Woolf… and certainly another score of contemporary greats, including Baldwin, Pinter, Morrison, Miller, Bellow and Naipaul.

Finally, and this is where it gets contentious, there’s great writing in translation, from Proust, Freud, Fanon and Bulgakov to Grass, Márquez, Kundera and Levi.

I am always lost in a book, and the canon has powerfully affected my life, to the extent that I have lugged The Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich in a bike pannier and perused Virgil in coffeehouses.  But I do have a few criticisms of the list, as I do of all lists.  Why so heavy on the Greeks when Roman literature had the greater influence?  Let me add the readable Roman writers Apulieus, Suetonius, and Seneca.

McCrum has chosen a superb collection of Anglo-American writers, but he is light on “women’s work,” so let me recommend the Brontes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Caroline Gordon.

Judging from the translation category, he needs to read more in translation (I’m being flippant!  He’s well-read.).  But since the following are not on his short list, let’s add Machiavelli, Dante, Stendhal, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Flaubert…and somebody please add some women!

Yes, reading and rereading the canon shapes us and changes us.  What I love about this list is that the recommended classics are readable without academic intervention. (Perhaps there should be a Penguin “Well-Read” kit?)   But does being well-read mean different things to different people? Let me hazard that…

…for professional book reviewers, it means reading the latest books; and they must know, or feign to know, Karl Ove Knaussgard, Rachel Cusk, Jhumpa Lahiri, Julian Barnes, Marilynne Robinson, and perhaps, as their wild card, George R. R. Martin. (British male writers have lauded Martin in the Guardian, the LRB, and the TLS.)

…for university professors, it means reading the classics according to their narrow specialty, whether that is ancient Greek drama or modernist poets, as well as every book of criticism on the subject.

…for bloggers, it means writing emoticon-heavy blurbs about romance novels; long personal responses to  Victorian novels; short reviews of the soon-to-be-forgotten best books of the month; or even learned essays on, say, the influence of Péter Nádas on European literature.

We women writers and bloggers have much work to do now on important  issues like saving abortion rights and reversing global warming (there’s not much time left!), but,  in our free time, let’s add great women writers to the canon.

Which Translators Changed Your Life?

In the 1990s you probably attended at least one poetry slam. You did not intend to: you would be at a pub or coffeehouse when suddenly an emcee would announce the Boston Slam team vs. Hyannis.  (It was fun.)  In a recent essay at  the NYR Daily, “Gained in Translation,” Tim Parks describes an event I never dreamed of:  a translation slam.  At this particular slam, two writers translated passages from Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island,  and then discussed their very different word choices with a moderator.

Readers of translations do not have to be language buffs.  Still, even if the last time you read a foreign language was in college, you will have noticed that the literature did not have an exact word-for-word match in English. I am a keen reader of Greek and Latin poetry (master’s in classics, former Latin teacher), but translations are imperfect.  The cognate languages Greek and Latin are more economical than the English language, and the word order is more flexible:  the order does not have to go Subject – verb – direct object, as it does in English, so the way you think actually changes.

Virgil’s Aeneid is in vogue because of the many reviews of the poet David Ferry’s new translation. I do not often read translations of Latin, so it was a strange experience to sit down with Ferry’s book.  His version of the Aeneid reads very well: the language is beautiful, the  translation is sometimes very precise, then goes astray, then returns. Robert Fagles’s translation is more exact, but less elegant.  My inner Latin teacher chooses the Fagles.  Would a poet prefer Ferry?

Yes, I read classics but depend on translators for other languages. And translators of 19th-century Russian and French literature transformed my life when I was a young woman.  Can I  express the joy I felt  in discovering Louise and Aylmer Maude‘s graceful translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace?  (The Maudes really are the best! says she who does not know Russian.)   And the English poet Kathleen Raine brought Balzac into my life, with her engrossing translations of Lost Illusions and Cousin Bette.

In “Gained in Translation,” Parks brilliantly describes the gift of translators.  He writes,

Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language. Since the book will be fuller and richer the more experience a reader brings to it, we would want our translator, as he or she reads, to be aware of as much as possible, aware of cultural references, aware of lexical patterns, aware of geographical setting and historical moment. Aware, too, of our own language and its many resources. Far from being “just subjective,” these differences will be a function of the different experiences these readers bring to the book, since none of us accumulates the same experience. Even then, of course, two expert translators will very likely produce two quite different versions. But if what we want is a translation of Tolstoy, rather than just something that sounds good enough sentence by sentence, it would seem preferable to have our reading done for us by people who can bring more, rather than less, to the work.

What a lovely essay!

Which translators have changed your life?

In Which I Flippantly Consider Venus’s Purple Buskins; & What Are Your Favorite Agatha Christie Novels?

Sarah Ruden’s translation of the Aeneid is the first in English by a woman.

I am obsessed with Virgil.  As  I’ve written many times since I began this blog five years ago, rereading the Aeneid in Latin is one of my guilty pleasures.  Virgil’s epic poem about the founding of Rome by Trojan refugees is partly a brilliant homage to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, partly a  celebration of empire to flatter Augustus, and partly an anti-war poem.

There are many critical interpretations of the Aeneid; hence comparing translations to the Latin can be illuminating.  This fall I am reading the English for the first time since Robert Fagles’ superb translation was published in 2006.  I am fascinated by two new (or newish) translations, the poet David Ferry’s and the classical philologist Sarah Ruden’s.

I love David Ferry’s spellbinding new translation, though occasionally he wanders from the Latin to perfect the beauty of his own lines.  But why, I lament flippantly, did he leave out Venus’s purple (or crimson) buskins (open-toed  boots with laces)? When she disguises herself as a huntress in Carthage to confront and advise her son Aeneas, she denies to him that she is a goddess and says she is just a normal Tyrian girl wearing the current fashion.

Before we look at Ferry’s, here is my literal translation of the Latin (and the Latin lines are below, at the end of the Virgil section of this post).  “Then Venus said: ‘Indeed, I am not worthy of such an honor./ It is the fashion for Tyrian girls to wear a quiver/ and purple buskins  tied high on the calves.'”

Venus as huntress (in  crimson buskins) appears to Aeneas in Carthage

Ferry is a very great poet, but he chooses to add a bow to the quiver and subtracts the purple from the boots.

Ferry writes, “Then Venus:  ‘I am not worthy of that honor./It is the custom of Tyrian maidens to wear/Such hunting boots and carry a quiver and bow.'”

Sarah Ruden, the first (and only?) woman to translate the Aeneid into English (Yale University Press, 2008), has a different, more literal approach. She lines up her  English lines of blank verse almost exactly with Virgil’s Latin , and  since Latin is much more concise  than English this is quite an achievement. Her translation is less poetic than Ferry’s, but equally effective. And, yes, she mentions the purple boots.  Here is Ruden’s translation of those three lines:

“She answered, ‘That would surely not be right./These quivers are what Tyrian girls all carry; /We all wear purple boots, laced on our calves.”

I love it!   And that famous purple dye, which ranged from violet to crimson, is worth a mention:  it was, later, one of the main Tyrian exports.

And here’s the Latin of those three lines:

Tum Venus: ‘Haud equidem tali me dignor honore;               335
virginibus Tyriis mos est gestare pharetram,
purpureoque alte suras vincire cothurno.


This weekend we saw and very much enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s new movie adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express.  It was so much fun!

It made me want to curl up with an Agatha Christie, so I found my copy of Murder on the Orient Express.  And then, looking around for more,  I found a charming article at the Barnes and Noble Reads blog about “10 Absolutely Essential Agatha Christie Classics.”

Here is the list, and do let me know your favorite Christies!  I have enjoyed the Jane Marple mysteries, but have many Hercule Poirots yet to read.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The ABC Murders
Murder on the Orient Express
And Then There Were None
Death on the Nile
Endless Night
Peril at End House
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Murder at the Vicarage

Hanging on by a Thread: Bookstores, Translation, & Literary Links


O tempora!  O mores!”–Cicero

It’s the end of the world as I know it, and I feel fine.–R.E.M.

We are hanging on by a thread, whether because of political anxiety, bad hairdos, global warming, or the uselessness of melatonin on hot nights. And we book junkies wonder what direction our lives will take if the printed word is censored in the new isolationist frenzy at home and abroad:  newspapers (dying or dead),  magazines (dying or dead), proofreading (dying or dead: I found a Latin error the other day in a great new novel),  foreign language study (budget cuts have eliminated many language departments), and communication via misspelled texts instead of letters on stationery (oh, long done!).

the swerve 51chpVixqKL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Well, thank God there’s a wide selection of backlisted and used books for sale online.  It is a vast improvement over having to travel hundreds of miles to find out-of-print books or obscure classics. I am not Poggio Bracciolini, the book scout who discovered the manuscript of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) in a German monastery (The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt).  Travel is expensive.

Nor do I romanticize independent bookstores, which are and always have been rich people’s hobbies. Some are good and some are bad, and there are few in these parts, but I hear they’re coming back.  Print book sales are up, they say, but since an e-book now costs almost as much as a paperback, isn’t that a deciding factor?  Well, they don’t admit that, but they are admitting to a coloring book boom.

Many years ago, an independent bookseller told me that if a book review ran in the newspaper before the book’s publication date, it hurt his business.  If the buyer couldn’t find it right away, he or she usually forgot about it and the bookseller lost a sale.  Now that we can “pre-order,” it must be even more disheartening.  I do quite often read reviews of books a week or month ahead of publication.

But not all is lost! We still have contact with the world.   Here are literary links to three articles about literature in translation. Let’s bring back language study, too.

1. Sam Jordison mentioned the rise of translated fiction in the UK when he asked The Guardian book club to choose a book in translation for  June.  (They chose The Master and Margarita.)

The fact that translated fiction now accounts for 7% of sales in the UK market is a welcome change. It feels like a long time since I wrote an article lamenting the lack of traction that foreign fiction had in the UK. If I were to attempt a similar provocation now, I might be tempted to suggest things are heating up too much. Every other book that publishers send me for review at the moment seems to be translated. On the one hand, this stream of books makes me worry about the thoughtless following of fashion and the many-limbed, no-headed mass of the mainstream publishing industry. On the other hand, it’s a heck of a lot better than books on mindfulness or beating titles like The Man Who Caught the Smugsmug Train to Cozylandia.

2. Words Without Borders recently published an interview with Lydia Davis on translation.  Her is an excerpt.

Q.  Does a translator need to dominate the culture of both the language she is translating to and the culture of the language she is translating from?

madame bovary lydia davis 515JL42NLCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_LD: By “dominate,” do you mean “master”? Or, even better: “have a deep and thorough understanding of it”? I want to clarify, because the attitude of a writer, including a translator, toward his or her own culture, as well as the culture of the original text, should be that of a seeker rather than a dominator. One is always seeking to understand. One gains some understanding, but one never understands completely—true of any culture in which one is working or living.

But to answer more simply: let’s assume that the translator has a good, deep understanding of her own culture. Then the question is how deep does her understanding of the other culture need to be? I found, in translating Madame Bovary, that a good deal of the text was understandable, and translatable, without that deeper knowledge of nineteenth-century French culture in a provincial town. Certain human behavior seems to be fairly universal, or at least common, to Western civilizations of the last couple of centuries. (I should beware of generalizations—there are always exceptions!) Other habits, customs, expressions are not as familiar to us in the twenty-first century. Still, translating the way I do, staying close to the original—even when it comes to expressions such as “to put straw in one’s boots” or “other dogs to beat” (yes? is that what Homais says to the beggar?)—rather than seeking equivalent expressions in English, the customs, habits, even modes of thinking of Flaubert’s time come through quite well. But I may translate accurately what is on Emma’s mantelpiece without knowing what her taste in decor “means”—and it would be good to know, even though that wouldn’t change my translation, in this case. For Flaubert, of course, what she had on her mantelpiece indicated her slavish following of current fashion, her striving for bourgeois gentility. His readers at the time would have known that. I use many reference books, learn what I can, write endnotes to help readers of the translation, but I do not feel I have to become a scholar of the culture Flaubert was writing about, or within. (Long answer! Third cup of coffee!)

3. At Words without Borders, Aaron Poochigian speculates in “Have We Lost The Lofty? Virgil’s Aeneid and the History of English Poetry” about changing literary tastes and new translations of the Aeneid.  Here is the opening paragraph.

aeneid dryden e2cde76d4ee8730e958f4bd11f157370.600x510x1In two months’ time Farrar, Straus and Giroux will release Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book Six of the Aeneid. In the same way as the epic was, in the words of his daughter Catherine Heaney, “a touchstone . . . to which he would return time and time again through his life,” so the often-translated epic itself has been a touchstone for changing literary and cultural tastes throughout the course of English literature. Translations of the Aeneid have, in fact, inaugurated major literary movements. Now seems a good time to review the history of this very Roman poem in English. Translations and re-translations are fascinating because they reveal the tastes (and limitations) of past ages and our own. Though poets of yore found in it a justification for British imperial ambition, the epic feels in places as if it were written with the express purpose of turning off contemporary readers—the hero’s great virtue is the Roman ideal of pietas (“piety, dutiful respect”), and the narrative is a kind of literary empire-building. We here in the twenty-first century want heroes with a rebellious spirit and abhor empires for their oppression of native peoples. No, the Aeneid’s politics are not for us.

By the way, I love Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary, and of course I read The Aeneid in Latin.

Are There Words with That? and Turning off the Like Button

Unlikely though it might seem, I have become an aficionado of the Book in a Box.

It started this spring when I bought a used copy of the 1975 Folio Society edition of Rosemary Edmonds’s translation of War and Peace.

David Bellos Is That a Fish in Your Ear 11431000I became interested in Edmonds during my reading of David Bellos’s stunning book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?:  Translation and the Meaning of Everything.  He quotes a passage from Edmonds’s translation of War and Peace to illustrate how Tolstoy links “the force of an utterance…to the identity of the speaker”…

The excerpt was so direct and simple that I wondered if Edmonds might be the bridge between the “Victorian-novel” elegance of Aylmer and Louise Maude  and the roughness of  Pevear and Volokhonsky.  And so I ordered the 1997 Folio Society reprint of Edmonds’s translation, which she originally did for Penguin.

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint. Edmonds translation

Frontispiece of the Folio Society edition, 1997 reprint, Edmonds translation

My experience with classics has taught me that English translations rarely capture the unique style and structure of foreign languages:  the English translations of Catullus, the most sinuous, sensuous of poets who sometimes translated Sappho,  are very stilted , with the exception of David Ferry, who reworks the poems so that they are far from  literal translations.  We are completely dependent on the translator if we do not know the language. I certainly do not know Russian.  The elegant Maude translation has been imprinted on my brain, but Edmonds’s smartness and lucidity are equally striking.

Right now I am reading Edmonds’ translation of  Anna Karenina.  I bought yet another beautiful book in a box–the 1975 Folio Scoiety edition–which has illustrations by Dodie Masterman.

My husband wants to know, “Are there words with that?”

I think the illustrations add something to the text.:)


I disapprove of social media.

It is lazy.  It is dull.

It is panem et circenses 

Facebook  is an advertising and surveillance network, Twitter (ditto),  Goodreads (ditto), Shelfari (ditto), etc.

And here at WordPress I practice the craft of blogging, i.e., posting diary entries on the internet instead of in the pages of my orange leatherette  diary (from Target, the fun, stylish box store).  My blog is very fast–draft and post in a few hours–unlike the crisp writing I did for money at my old job.  It is social media!

There is a superabundance of social media on the internet.  Very little of it has value.  But I understand it will last forever, like atomic waste.

In 2012 several male critics  attacked  blogs and social media. It was  male networking at its finest.  Editors, critics, computer guys–you name it, they were gathering at their clubs. I expected them to read Robert Bly and go camping in the woods and howl.  They complained that social media were destroying book and film criticism.  Social media are too “nice,” or was it “too mean?”  I thought they sounded like a ridiculously whiny out-of-date Greek chorus.  The internet has ruined not just criticism–it has ruined everything!  Don’t they get it?  Are they not on this planet?  No more letters, no more bookstores, no more music stores, live-streaming of this and that (and I just got used to my DVD player and CD player and I don’t think my 15-year-old TV is capable of live-streaming), no more writing (try not to say more than a sentence or two and use a lot of emoticons and abbreviations like u for you), no more newspapers (they’re dying), no more post office (it is cutting back hours), no more pay phones, no more ozone layer (well, I can’t blame that on the internet).   They’re just hoping the damned cloud with our information will stay up because we’re going to spend a lot of time indoors.

Oh, and just so you know:  I turned off the like button.  Likes were starting to make sense:  that’s why I had to pull the plug.  Because a like button is the la-a-a-a-a-z-z-z-z-iest communication on earth