Friday, October 23, 2009

Why my Textbook on Mythology is Trash

I'm going to make a shocking admission, and I apologize if you feel betrayed, but the truth must come out.

In college, I never took a class on Classical Mythology.

In my defense, I did make the attempt. I registered, bought the book, and even attended a few classes. Unfortunately I found out very quickly that I wasn't going to learn well in the course. There were a number of reasons I felt this way that I won't get into here, but the fact is, I dropped the course and didn't look back.

Shame on me.

That being said, I kept the book. Because what classics major can't use another text book on Classical Mythology? Who could say no to keeping a copy of Classical Mythology, Seventh Edition, by Mark P.O. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon? Or maybe I had already unwrapped the plastic from the book and it was too far into the semester to return it--I don't remember. But I put it on a shelf and have been carrying it around with me as baggage ever since.

Now, my husband and I have no dearth of textbooks. We were both the kind of student that had a tendency to take classes we had genuine interests in, for fun, and then keep the books rather than selling them back. But there was one huge difference between us. He actually read them. Mostly, I just skimmed, if I cracked open the book at all, which was quite honestly the exception and not the rule. It wasn't that I didn't like to read, or that I didn't study, or that I wasn't a good student, because I did quite well for myself. It's just that most textbooks weren't really all that necessary to get the A. Most of my professors didn't actually require you to read them. The stuff they wanted you to know, they lectured on in class, and maybe if they were crabby, they threw a single question from the texts onto an exam, here or there, which was either easily avoided, or easily bluffed.

All of this is simply to excuse the fact that I didn't come to the realization that this text book I have owned for the last too many years is utterly worthless, until today when I sat down and actually WANTED to read it.

So here is my major beef: there are blocks of quoted text from what seem to be primary sources, without an obvious citation of what sources they came from! Maybe I'm too hard on them. I expect my citations and references to be up front. I expect either directly before, or directly after the chunk of quoted text, to see a note telling me if it came from Homer, or Ovid, or Herodotus, or whoever. I expect it to be clear and obvious, and not hidden in a massive paragraph six inches from the actual quote. I don't expect to have to go hunting for it. Nor do I expect to have to go hunting for the essential explanatory footnotes at the end of the chapter.  Come on, you guys! Sources make a world of difference! It really does matter if what you're quoting comes from a later Roman author, or an earlier Greek one! It really really really matters if what you're quoting comes from Herodotus, and not Homer. That's a difference of hundreds of years!

Maybe I can give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this mess of mythological soup would be an adequate introduction to someone with no background in Classical history, and no previous familiarity with the stories told therein. But frankly, I'd much have preferred more source documents, more effectively labeled, and less editorializing and interpretation. Homer and Ovid speak for themselves in a lot of ways. And definitely Apollodorus is very straightforward with his work as well. I hate to say it, but wikipedia gave me a fuller and more effectively annotated account of Helen of Troy. Complete with links to translated source material, AND original Greek and Latin.

The result of all of this is that my textbook on classical mythology is going to go back on the shelf, and I'm going to go back to focusing on the primary sources, and trust my own powers of reason and deduction to help me sift through all the texts.

I did conquer Euripides play, Helen. He falls into the phantom Helen camp, as opposed to the real Helen, going to Troy with Paris. The play places the True Helen in Egypt, waiting and hoping that Meneleus will return and find her there. I'm honestly not sure there's much left, in regard to primary sources, for me to get through, aside from the Iliad. I'm really pleased with the progress I've been making.

I hope you'll all find it in your hearts to forgive me for not having taken the actual class, but I'm definitely not slouching on the research! Have no fear!


  1. Meh. You are no longer in need of classes. You've the motivation and you know the proper way to go about learning on your own.

  2. I had a feeling you wouldn't be concerned :) I appreciate that!

  3. We're in the same boat Amalia. I'm being published for historical mysteries in Classical Greece yet I've never formally studied history or writing. I'm quite sure you've read and studied beyond most people with qualifications.

  4. Mr. Corby:
    It's good to know I'm not alone! I almost wonder if professional study is a hindrance, because you've been influenced by the "Authorities" in the field, and feel as though you have to see things in a certain way-- whereas, as an "amateur" no one has told you what's right or wrong and you have the flexibility to think outside the established framework. Which is good for Fiction!

  5. A professional historian writing fiction would certainly have two hurdles to overcome which the rest of us don't have: the pros probably have an overwhelming temptation to show off their knowledge when what's required is to tell a story, and the pros are well versed in academic writing, which is to fiction what a rotting carcass is to a gourmet meal. But there are fine historians and classicists who also do an outstanding job of story telling. Kelli Stanley for example.

  6. I wonder if the greater concern would be not just wanting to show off the knowledge, but knowing too much. Being too focused on the ACTUALITY and leaving no room for imagination.

    That being said, I'm sure you're correct that there are historians who can make this leap from the actual history to story telling. I wish there were more of them.

    In my mind, the line between history and fiction is very thin. Writing for me is sometimes like hunting through archaeological evidence, looking for the truth, to unearth the action. What's true to the characters, what's true to the story. I feel like it shouldn't be that different for historians.


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