gearing down for Homer

I’ve changed my approach to reading. I read from several books each day, in an informally structured way. I start my afternoon reading session (usually around 4:00 p.m.) with a “dharma” book—that is, a book on the Buddhist teachings or something closely related. I start with this in order to make real the idea that my life should be centered on spiritual things; my spiritual life and welfare should be my first priority. I may not act that way much of the time, but in my reading period I can bring that intention to life by putting my spiritual reading first. My current selection here is The Tantric Distinction: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by Jeffrey Hopkins, a book that I first bought and read in February 1987, shortly after I had started the practice of meditation. My gosh, 30 years. Life passes very fast.

The next slot in my reading period is taken by fiction, or I suppose I could say imaginative literature, because sometimes I read poetry or drama here.  For a long time this was what I started my reading period with; it was only when I resumed my meditation practice about 3 years ago that I made a change.

Next is usually a research text for my brontosauruslike work in progress, The Age of Pisces. These might be works of history that tell me about the world I’m writing about (the Hellenistic world of the 1st century BC), or they might be thematic works—books relating to the ideas that are present in my epic. Or they might even be craft books, for in the past couple of years I have been making a belated effort to learn how to write properly! A breech birth, I’ve done everything bass ackwards in life. I’m trusting that there’s some cosmic purpose behind all that, for sometimes it feels like I’ve wasted a lot of time.

After the research text comes some other nonfiction book on a subject of current interest to me.

So what was the change? I made the change when I finished reading the Iliad a couple of months ago. I had enjoyed reading it (it was my second time, the first being in 2008), and had a strong sense that there was a lot in it to think about. And, beyond the fact that Homer’s Iliad is one of the Great Books of the Western World and therefore forms part of the intellectual foundation of our Western civilization, it is one of the great epics in Western literature, and I myself am engaged in writing an epic. I see myself as being part of the literary tradition of which Homer was arguably the originator. So I want to learn about the epic form from him.

I’ve often wanted to analyze stories after reading or viewing them, and many times have done short written analyses. But I’ve always had to squeeze these in among my other activities, and they have tended to be rushed and incomplete. More things keep coming; I keep reading and viewing. I never give myself much chance to reflect on what I’ve read or viewed. If I wanted to do a more proper job of it, I was going to have to make time for it. And the most logical time for that is to use the reading slot itself: instead of reflecting on a work while already reading the next one, I would hold off starting another fictional work until I had finished processing the last one. Now, at “fiction reading” time, I come down to my office and open up my analysis document for the Iliad, and resume my musings there.

As of now, it runs to 104 pages. The first 28 pages are a scene-by-scene summary of the poem which I made while I was reading it. As I read each scene, I would write down a summary of it and then type those summaries into my analysis document the following morning. The next 36 pages consists of extracts from other books that I’ve pasted in as information or commentaries on ideas that I’m working with in the analysis. These are arranged alphabetically by book. The first one, for example, is from the book Anger by Carol Tavris, and it consists of a single line: “Anger is the human hiss.” I think that’s a beautiful and provocative line. But there are many other works represented in this section, including extracts from a few Wikipedia articles.

Finally, at page 64, my own notes begin. They have wandered far and wide as I have sought for handholds and toeholds to climb to my own understanding of this work. The Iliad is one of the most analyzed books ever written; a large section of the ancient Library of Alexandria was devoted to the works of Homer and commentaries on them. Before the Bible became the foundational text of Western culture, Homer’s works were it; people resorted to them in just the way people over the centuries have resorted to the Bible, for knowledge, wisdom, and answers to their life problems. But I don’t want to read other people’s thoughts on the Iliad until I have formed some of my own. This reader wants to respond to the writer without intermediaries.

And my agenda is bigger than just the Iliad. I’m interested in all the great epics of Western literature. I refer to the ones included in the Great Books set:

  • the Iliad by Homer
  • the Odyssey by Homer
  • the Aeneid by Virgil
  • the Divine Comedy by Dante
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton

Are these books somehow telling the story of Western civilization and its transformations? Are there themes in common? Is there one deep underlying story? These are questions I want to answer for myself. I have some preliminary ideas that I find exciting.

Meanwhile, I still grapple with the Iliad. Puzzling over it for the last 3 months has taken me to places I would never have gone had I simply put the book down and picked up another. It has had me reading up on Greek mythology, the history of warfare, and the psychology of anger. For it, I have changed my reading schedule, the granite bedrock of my daily life.

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