I do not usually post my book reviews on my blog, though Goodreads does have a link to past reviews (right-hand column). As I’ve run out of things to blog about, at least for the present, I figure I’ll start posting book reviews here as well, for further visibility.
This book was an epic undertaking for me. In total, I recorded 137 hours of reading time that went into processing it fully. Even A Clash With Kings, a 1300 page epic fantasy, took me 50 hours to read, so this truly was the most complex read I’ve done to date. (For what it’s worth, though I am a slow reader, a typical “simple” genre fiction or nonfiction novel usually takes me about 5-8 hours to read.)
Reviewing this book is difficult. A review about the book itself feels pointless, since this is one of the oldest books in existence, and a foundation of not just the epic fantasy tradition, but much of literature, even culture. Enough has been written about it, so I cannot add anything that I feel is useful. My review then would be more about my experience of 137 hours with Homer and his words, as presented by the brilliant and meticulous translator, Robert Fagles.
That itself is probably what stands out most in this copy of the Iliad I read. Put together by Penguin Classics, the book gave me the experience of getting lost in analysis of Homer’s hypnotic poetics. I might have taken 137 hours to read and analyze this text, but that’s a fraction of the time Fagles spent over the 2 decades of his research he committed to writing the translation presented in this book. Some purists would say without reading the Greek, one cannot truly appreciate the Iliad, but Fagles has given enough notes (including a glossary with notes on every name, including pronunciations), that as a writer reading to improve my writing (and not a classics scholar), I did not feel in reading the English prose that I was missing the appreciation for the source material. The essay by Bernard Knox at the beginning is itself a masterpiece, 60 pages of analysis that set my expectations correctly when I began the translation proper, without which I would have felt I was just jumping into some poetry that would invoke soon images of Brad Pitt on the shores of Troy.
Reading this book was a true maturation process for me personally, in that it has instilled an endurance for me with reading itself. Whereas my past tendency has been to feel I should be rushing faster through books, to read more, this book taught me the importance of doing the opposite. True, there are millions of books, and there are so many to read. But does it really matter if you’ve read 2000 books, or 5000, or 700 that you know intimately like your own soul? What does it mean to read, to sit and immerse yourself in text and the existential experience of it?
That was the main takeaway for me from reading this copy of The Iliad. How fitting for a book whose origin might indeed have been the origin itself of writing stories down using the new invention brought to Ancient Greece by the Phoenicians, which later would become our Latinized scripts. How fitting to contemplate just what it means to sit and read a book when reading a book whose author was taking an innovative leap — daring to write down what could only be spoken, daring to capture the fleeting, the auditory and dramatic experience that would ever change unless it was copied into a form that would live longer than the short life of mortals. How fitting for me, a writer struggling to do the same, to sink into this foundation, and emerge a butterfly.
I look forward to reading many more books, but will read none of them the same thanks for the experience of this book, this rite of passage. Onward I go to Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, Vicious by V.E. Schwab, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Middlemarch by George Eliot, the Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K Leguin. The Iliad and Homer will shine like a bright sun, and will draw me inevitably back to the Greek world, via the Odyssey and other works translated by Robert Fagles, such as the Aeneid and the works of Sophocles and Aeschylus.
If you are considering reading some of the classics, especially a book like the Iliad, I highly recommend this translation presented by Penguin Classics. It presents a powerful intermediate between old, stuffy and outdated translations, and modernized, simplified texts that lose context. This book is fucking hard to read, but in the form it’s been presented by Fagles, it becomes a labor of love, not unnecessary torture.
I now have a column of books in my office by Penguin Classics, inspired by the experience reading this book, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which will help me tap into some foundation reading amidst my diversified pile over the next 8 or so years I spend writing my next book. I am truly grateful that Penguin has put together the classics in this form and that I discovered them through this version of the Iliad.
So here I conclude a different kind of review, about the value of reading a book, rather than the book itself. Those 137 hours will instead go into decades of inspiration that has rocked the universe of my fiction-making mind, and that defies any attempt to distill it into a review, but for those who want it, I would add:
Most ideas I had about what I thought the Iliad was were wrong. Basing it on the movie Troy, or even the slightly more accurate Troy: Fall of A City put out by Netflix, misses the mark. This book is not about a war or heroes or Greek gods. It is about the rage of Achilles, and that as a metaphor to appreciate the tragedy of war as it was perceived in the ancient world at a time when agricultural innovation was evolving into a new problem: that of alienation of neighbour from neighbour, through the guise of the great city and its walls and its deep treasury to be looted. How we rage over what has been denied us, and so exacerbate that into full-scale wars and impersonal conflicts, when in fact, like Achilles and Priam clasping hands, the true solution — uniting in compassion, empathy, understanding, setting aside ego — eludes us until the moment when it is too late. What a tragedy, that whole matter, and it is this itself that is Homer’s point. Not that there is a solution or a way out, but simply that this conflict has to exist when we, in our roots, evolved from cooperating tribes trying to work together to survive, and stopped learning how to share, and forgot how to be one family. What a tragedy, this rage of man against man.
A powerful book, and relevant in our day today, and in any future day so long as we live in strife and xenophobia and egotism, a true mirror into the collective human soul, as captured immortality by Homer’s hypnotic brilliance, to take that daring leap and write down a story, that it might live on and on, in many a heart and mind, that we might be forced to contemplate this fundamental, most important truth — this horror and injustice, this rage of Achilles — for many generations to come…for as long as it is relevant, living on like the glory of Achilles promised when he chose vengeance instead of long life and peace.