Your reputation precedes you

Things have reputations. Books, being things, are not excluded from this fact. The older a book gets, the more likely it is to either fade away due to a relative lack of reputation, or acquire a nigh-mythical status due to continuous accumulation of reputation. The Odyssey, having been in circulation for longer than almost every other book in existence, is positively ponderous with reputation. Katamari-like, it has been rolled around the planet, its girth increasing with each pass. Its reputation is so massive, if we launched it into orbit, the tides would be affected.

Not surprisingly, people can be intimidated by this enormous bulk. It makes the book difficult to lift, let alone open and peruse. What if I don’t understand it? What if I don’t like it? When a novel arrives on the shelves of the local bookstore unencumbered by reputation, these two questions are nonexistent, and I am free to form my own opinions without worrying about collective judgment. But when the tome in question has already been analyzed ad infinitum and judged worthy of acclaim, it becomes almost impossible to approach the work without a veritable crowd of critics standing behind me. A mob. A network, like Verizon. “Can you hear me now? Good.”

Many people–at least, the ones who read for pleasure rather than school–simply avoid reading these books because they don’t want to go to the trouble of shouldering the burden, and they lack the will or ability to ignore it. But I say to you people, do not be discouraged! Do not think that you’ll have to read an accompanying encyclopedia’s worth of history and philosophy and criticism to understand and appreciate The Odyssey. One of the reasons that such works persist and gain reputation is that they are, believe it or not, accessible and relevant and enjoyable. They were not written for some elite class of super-intelligent aristocrats living in ivory towers; they were written for the common folk, who needed distraction and entertainment after spending all day working the fields or baking or making horseshoes. Even Shakespeare’s works, which are practically synonymous with snobbery at this point, were performed in a part of town that was considered uncouth, to say the least. There weren’t nobles in fancy dresses hanging around, there was booze and hookers! Think of it, my friends: see a play, then get drunk and get laid! This is not high culture we are talking about here, and yet it has gained that reputation.

And so, as I read the Odyssey, I like to think of Homer sitting in front of a roaring fire, maybe in the middle of some rustic hamlet with thatched-roof cottages. The farmers have come in from the fields, excited because there’s going to be an awesome party and a great story. Cows and sheep are killed as a sacrifice to the gods, roasted on spits, and then the delicious crispy meat gets passed around among the villagers along with sweet wine and bread and cheese. People chat about the weather, the crops, the animals, who’s marrying whom, who’s having kids, who went off to Athens or Sparta or some other big city. When everyone is settled, Homer takes a swig of wine, clears his throat, and starts chanting, “Sing to me, Muse…” And everyone is entranced by this story about a good guy from a small town making it in the big world, then losing it all, then finally making it home and living happily ever after.

That’s the kind of reputation a girl can sink her teeth into. Like tasty, tasty lamb.


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