Mary Beard: “Virgil was a radical rap artist of the first century BC” | Books


My first memory of reading
When I was about four years old, my mom read to me Beatrix Potter’s The Story of a Ferocious Bad Bunny. It was so scary (with the hunter’s weapon arriving for the evil bunny) that I could barely stand my mom going on, but I didn’t want her to stop either. It was a great lesson in the terror of reading pleasure.

My favorite book growing up
It depends on what you mean by growing up… I still am. But if you take me back to school, I’d say Jane Eyre. I’m not sure I’m entirely proud of how I got involved. I sympathized with “Reader, I married him” a little too strongly. But he made his mark. When I was around 10, I was determined to learn it by heart, but unfortunately I only got to page three.

The book that changed my life
Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas. I read it when I was a doctoral student, and it opened my eyes to anthropology in general, and in particular to what we consider “dirty”. I have tried to use these ideas in my own work on the ancient world. I owe a lot to this book.

The book that made me want to be a writer
It was an academic book, Conquerors and Slaves by Keith Hopkins, which was published in 1978 while I was writing my doctoral thesis. In all kinds of ways it was a very hardcore old story, but it was also spiritual, denominational, naughty, and personally engaged. It made me realize that writing highly technical non-fiction doesn’t have to be boring.

The book that made me change my mind
There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack by Paul Gilroy, which came out in the late 1980s while I was teaching the classics in Cambridge, after a few wonderful years in London. I still think this is one of the best breed books I have read in the UK. I am not sure that I “change my mind”, perhaps rather rephrase the issues to better understand them.

The book that influenced my writing
It might sound like a bit of an ivory tower, but you can’t study Latin for half a century without seriously thinking about the writing process. Reading the Annals of Tacitus, his story of the early Roman Emperors, was a turning point for me, or a series of turning points – from when I first struggled in school in 1970 until my last. attempt a few weeks ago. It’s a cynical and bitter account, but it’s as close to poetry as prose can get, and it helped me see how you could make words really work for you.

The book I came back to
OK, I admit, Virgil’s Aeneid. I spent so many years of my life writing essays that I couldn’t believe I could explain why it was great. But it wasn’t until decades later that I really understood what it was for, and that Virgil was not a worthy classic, but a radical first century BC rap artist.

The book I’m currently reading
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, a brilliant evocation of Cyprus and the Civil War, and Fallen Idols by Alex von Tunzelmann, one of the best books to understand the long history behind our own “statues wars”. And I reread The Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, with even more pleasure the second time.

My comfort reading
It’s a mix between Lindsey Davis ‘Falco mysteries (about Marcus Didius Falco, the Roman detective and his posh wife, Helena Justina) and Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy (which did more for Cicero’s reputation in the modern world than a battalion of classics ever had).

The book I could never read again
I made a point of not ruining Tess des d’Urbervilles by rereading it.

Twleve Caesars: Images of power from the ancient world to the modern world by Mary Beard is published by Princeton (£ 30). To support the Guardian and the Observer, purchase a copy on Delivery charges may apply.

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