This is the first of Mary Beard’s books that I have read, but I have been meaning to read something of hers for a while – so I had quite high expectations for this. I expected Confronting the Classics to be a journey through the Classical world with Mary Beard, an education in how that world relates to ours; and in way that is what you get, but I have to say I was disappointed to discover, upon actually starting the book, that Confronting the Classics is actually a collection of book reviews that Beard has written for the LRB, NYRB, and the TLS. It opens with a lecture she gave New York in 2011 entitled ‘Do Classics Have a Future?’, which she says is more or less her manifesto. It’s a great speech and still works when written down. As for the rest of the book, the fact that each chapter is about a totally different subject means that the whole thing feels a bit fragmented, and although the chapters are grouped into sections, supposedly tying them together with themes, this doesn’t quite work. As a reader you feel pushed and pulled between topics, and frankly some of them are more interesting than others (to me at least – you might feel differently about it). The fact that the chapters are also book reviews means that you learn about the writer more than you probably want to, and the chapters just aren’t long enough and don’t cover enough ground on each subject. Each one feels a bit brief.
But there are some positives. Mary Beard is a very accessible writer despite ostensibly writing as an academic, and it is a pleasure to learn new things through her writing. Despite their faults the chapters are very engaging, and this really highlighted the fact that you wish each one was longer. For instance I really enjoyed the chapter on Nero and the Colosseum – and if Mary Beard wrote a whole book about the history of Rome’s buildings, I would probably read it. One chapter is not enough. That said, the structure of the book has been well thought out, and each chapter is cohesive and self-contained. I learned some brilliant new things, not least about the Colosseum, and the book has really made me want revisit Rome, and visit a lot of other ancient sites for the first time.
If you love Classics, you will find something to love in this book. My only advise would be: don’t expect to be able to read it straight through like any other book. It is one to dip in and out of a bit, I think. I started another book before I finished it, something I wouldn’t normally do, but it actually worked because I needed a little break. The pace of the book isn’t quite right, and it is fragmented, but don’t let that put you off. Confronting the Classics is genuinely fascinating and well written, and I will definitely read more of Mary Beard’s books in the future.