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Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey": A Biography (original 2007; edition 2008)

by Alberto Manguel

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220952,892 (3.64)5
Member:lewissmith4
Title:Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey": A Biography
Authors:Alberto Manguel
Info:Atlantic Books (2008), Paperback, 304 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
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Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography (Books That Changed the World) by Alberto Manguel (2007)

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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
The "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" are considered to be among the most influential works of literature ever written, second only to the "Bible" in the scope and depth of their influence. Thus, a book that focuses on Homer's historic works was an obvious choice for the "Books that Changed the World" series. The goal of this work is to explore how the Homeric works have influenced writers over the past 2800 years. The adjective "Homeric" is useful, as it acknowledges that there most likely was no single author of either of these two works, which instead are the only written versions we have of orally- transmitted epic poems that predate the invention of Greek writing.

Alberto Manguel, the author of this work, is erudite and eloquent, with an encyclopedic grasp of great literature. Then what's not to like? Frankly, while the author's knowledge of western literature is impressive, I found this work a bit frustrating to read; it wanders from topic to topic, inserting a few lines of poetry here, discussing a tangential point there, and ultimately leaving the reader (or this one at least) with very little that was tangible and even less that was memorable. If 10 competent historians of science were asked to describe the ways that Darwin's "Origin of Species" changed scientific history, their responses would likely be very similar, since the facts are indisputable and easy to state clearly. Why must an essay on the influence of Homer's works be any less clear? -- unless (as I suspect) clarity and focus were sacrificed for the sake of rhetorical flourishes and philosophical musings. Overall, while this book mentions various cases in which later writers have drawn on Homeric themes, whether and how they changed human history warrants a more concrete and less esoteric account. ( )
2 vote danielx | Oct 25, 2013 |
As a potential guide for the inexperienced reader, Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography by Alberto Manguel seems on the surface to be an excellent and not too intimidating choice. It is part of a series called “Books that Changed the World” (Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species are also in the series) and it is clear that its purview is one of broad brush strokes, of introductions, rather than comprehensive, in-depth study.

And really, to write a book on why the Iliad and the Odyssey have “changed the world” the editors could hardly have made a better choice for an author than Alberto Manguel. Famous for his many books about books, including A History of Reading, The Library at Night, and Into the Looking Glass, Manguel is the kind of guy who can’t write two sentences without it becoming indisputably clear that he has read far, far more books than you ever will, but he somehow manages not to make you feel inadequate about it. His books are a literature enthusiast’s exercise in self-indulgence. He just loves to talk story. In fact, I bet he was offered the job because someone asked him “how western literature had been influenced by Homer” during some dinner function and he was able to rattle on for twenty minutes without once consulting his iPhone for a Google reference.

Because that is what Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography is—not a biography of the birth or creation of either the Iliad or the Odyssey, but an account of the many ripples the books have caused once they were dropped into the pond of literature. Since, as Manguel quotes from Raymond Queneau, “Every great work of literature is either the Iliad or the Odyssey,” the book touches very briefly on many subjects and many shores. From St. Jerome’s conflicted adoration of Cicero and Virgil to the translation centers of the early Arab Caliphs. From the philosophical quarrels of French courtiers to the rarified arguments of German poets. Homer as history. Homer as symbolism of the unconscious. Homer as possibly being a woman (a very short section, that).

It is a bird's eye view of the cultural impact of the epics, and one that I found both tantalizing and torturous. The author seems to constantly drift away from his subjects just at the point where I would start to get interested: following his thread from Odysseus and the Cyclops to Jack and the Beanstalk, for example, which is a connection I would never have thought to make on my own. Or relating the debate between the “Anciens” (who thought classical literature should be imitated) and the “Modernes” (who didn’t) in seventeenth-century France which reached absolutely absurd levels of animosity among intellectuals and artists. Is there anything funnier than a set of furious philosophers arguing about the best way to split a hair? But no sooner does he introduce a new topic than Manguel slips away to talk about something else. I had a ridiculous impulse to grab the author by the shoulders and make him walk a straight line instead of wandering all over the place like the little boy in the cartoon. As a result, I have a long list of references that touch on the Iliad or the Odyssey and which I would very much like to know more about, if only I can find a writer who can stay on topic. One of the blurbs on the back of the book says “Alberto Manguel is to reading what Casanova was to sex.” I find myself hoping that Casanova was a little more focused and in the moment, so to speak, and resisting the urge to make jokes about finishing quickly. Read full review
4 vote southernbooklady | Nov 29, 2010 |
A well thought through series of essays on aspects of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and how they have been viewed through time. Picking up references to other books and stories that I have written was fun,although I nowhere near as well read as the author. ( )
  CarltonC | Jun 5, 2010 |
I have been rereading the Odyssey and last year reread the Iliad. As background reading I found this collection of essays and commentary to be a valuable compendium of literary information. Alberto Manguel's commentary is best read with the original works by Homer. However, the commentary goes beyond the typical analysis of the text and includes references to and about the Odyssey and The Iliad that I found helpful. The influence of Homer's poetry on Virgil, Dante and religions from Christianity to Islam is valuable. Since this book is brief it can be used as a starting point for further investigation into any number of avenues in pursuit of understanding the importance of Homer for us today. Alberto Manguel is an excellent guide. ( )
  jwhenderson | Dec 7, 2009 |
Not a snappy title I agree but a very informative and inspiring survey of the influence of Homer on the Western Canon. Reminded me of a Verlaine poem I liked and of a Borges story that's really something special.

Most astonishing fact of the day: Alexander Pope completed a translation of Homer without knowing any Greek and hardly any Latin. No one seemed to care about this small deficiency as the book sold in droves and made him an extremely wealthy man. Gibbon described the work as having, "every merit except that of likeness to the original." A fair cop really, considering. ( )
  gerundivalattraction | Jan 19, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0871139766, Hardcover)

No one knows if there was a man named Homer, but there is no little doubt that the epic poems assembled under his name form the cornerstone of Western literature. The Iliad and The Odyssey, with their incomparable tales of the Trojan War, brace Achilles, Ulysses and Penelope, the Cyclops, the beautiful Helen of Troy, and the petulant gods, are familiar to most readers because they are so pervasive. They have fed our imagination for over two and a half millennia, inspiring everyone from Plato to Virgil, Pope to Joyce, Dante to Wolfgang Petersen. In this graceful and sweeping addition to the Books that Change the World Series, Alberto Manguel traces the lineage of the epic poems. He considers their original purpose, either as allegory or record of history, surveys the challenges the pagan poems presented to the early Christian world, and traces their spread after the Reformation. Following Homer through the greatest literature ever created, Manguel’s book above all delights in the poems themselves, the “primordial spring without which there would have been no culture.”

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:34:45 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Examines "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" from their origins, the colorful characters and events chronicling the Trojan War and its aftermath, and their legacy for Western culture.

(summary from another edition)

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