Archives for March 30th, 2009


How to read the ancients

Laurand begins this chapter in the supplement to his Manuel (Pour mieux comprendre l’antiquite classique) with a nice anecdote about a certain English author. The story sounds familiar, and I wonder if anyone knows who he means (please leave a comment if you do):

Un auteur anglais raconte qu’un matin, il s’assit devant sa table de travail, ouvrit à la première le Discours sur la couronne et ne se leva pas avant d’en avoir terminé la lecture. « Jamais, ajoute-t-il, je n’ai autant admiré Démosthène que ce jour-là. »

C’est que l’impression produite sur nous par les anciens dépend beaucoup de la manière dont nous les lisons. Une interruption suffit parfois à rompre le charme.

Here’s my version for those sans français:

An English writer relates that he sat at his desk one morning, opened up to the first page of On the Crown, and did not rise until he finished reading. “I have never,” he says, “admired Demosthenes as much as I did that day.”

That’s because the impression that ancient writers produce upon us really depends upon how we read them. An interruption is enough to break the spell.

If the sentiment sounds familiar it may be that Laurand was the source of my previous posts on How to be a Classical Philologist (pt. 1 & pt. 2), as he had some very good advice on how to read elsewhere in the Manuel. This speaks to the importance of reading whole works, quickly enough to have a sense of the work as a unity, and this is something we all probably need to do a little more of.