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May 2015
Confronting the Classics - Mary Beard - Profile, 2014

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This is a fix-up of various reviews that Beard has written for publications such as The London Review of Books and is intended to show how Classics is still a lively and relevant subject today. To my mind it doesn't quite succeed, and the reason is its format.

Yes, yes, I know - for a book review to criticise a book for being a set of book reviews may seem like the height of hypocrisy, particularly coming from someone who doesn't do much original writing himself. But that's the point. The reason I write book reviews is that I am lazy. Criticising others is simple; coming up with something worth criticising much harder. And I think that Beard can to a certain extent be accused of taking the easy way out here. Her reviews are interesting and entertaining reads. But the scattergun approach imposed by the variety of topics that they cover reveals a common weakness about Classics as a whole that she does not really address.
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July 2009
Pompeii - Mary Beard - Profile Books, 2008
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One of the problems with the traditional western philosophy of individualism is that it treats people as if they were metaphorical billiard bills who interact by bouncing off each other. In my view, this is incorrect - a better model of human personality is that we are nodes in a network, each one of us a unique and complex tangle of our interactions with other humans and things in our environment*. One of the ways in which the network manifests is what happens when someone dies. In the billiard ball model, it shouldn't matter - there's simply one less ball to bounce off. But we all know that this isn't true. Bereavement leaves long-lasting and sometimes bizarre effects, as would be expected if the relationship threads connecting us to the dead person were flapping loose and changing who we are.

I mention this because it might explain one of the odder ways in which I remember my mother, which is to watch or read things that I would not otherwise be interested in - like bonnet-buster tv series - because she would have done if she were alive. This book is a case in point. She loved history, but her interest was not in its epic sweep, grand personalities or major battles. What she liked was social history, the colour and texture of everyday life. She made scrap books with pictures culled from magazines, books and photographs which traced the development of furniture or clothing styles down the ages, and her interest in dolls houses (notorious to certain readers of this blog) was chiefly about the imaginative reconstruction of domestic interiors from different historical periods. She never did a Roman scene but this book, with its quirky insights into Roman everyday life as deduced from the findings at Pompeii, would have been absolutely grist to her mill and would, I think, have inspired her to try. And I must say that I enjoyed it too.
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