Thursday, November 11th, 2010

It's All Greek to MeIt’s All Greek to Me by Charlotte Higgins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was incredibly disappointing.

I’d hoped to get an overview of ancient Greek thought, politics, philosophy, and art and then a linking between these facets of antiquity and the world today. For example, I’d hoped for the journey that political thought took from Athenian democracy to the modern systems of democracy practiced in the world.

This book doesn’t deliver that. Don’t get me wrong: it *does* describe Athenian democracy (for example). And it does point out that an Athenian wouldn’t recognize democracy in modern Western civilizations. But it skips entirely the links of how one system eventually morphed in to the other. The book doesn’t even have to good graces to say if there ever was a link or not. I’d be satisfied with “modern democracies descended from X (probably Rome?) and really have nothing to do with Athens”. But instead, there’s nothing.

That happens a lot. Higgins tells us that Homer and Thucydudes are read at West Point, but she doesn’t tell us the value that students get out of it (other than some vague hand-waving in the direction of Vietnam). It’s all vague and cursory and ultimately unsatisfying.

The blurb on the cover reads “From Homer to the Hippocratic oath, how Ancient Greece has shaped our world”, so I don’t feel out of place expecting just that. But, in reality, the book is just “From Homer to the Hippocratic oath”. There’s value in that; but it’s not what was promised and it’s not what I wanted when I started reading it.

The book is also poorly written; it would have strongly benefited from a good editor. The style jumps all over the place: from formal lecture-style material to conspiratorially whispering to the reader and back again — often in the same paragraph*. Higgins also never met a synonym that she didn’t like. The book often seems less like a book about the ancient Greeks and more of an excuse to use a big thesaurus. It feels like a middle school writing project where the student is trying REALLY hard to impress the teacher. I’m not a fan.

I’d avoid this one. The chapter on Plato was probably worth reading if, like me, you’ve had no real exposure to his work. Other than that, there’s really no meat on this one.

At least it’s short.

* I do the same thing, of course. But then, I would never suggest that you should read something I’ve written; let alone pay for it!

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