The Last Book I Loved: History of the Peloponnesian War
This is not an easy book to love. As an object, it is one of those books all of an age: squat, with yellowing, pulpy pages, the kind whose corners you can’t turn down because the paper creases so hard it that it might as well be perforated. Dog-ear it in the opposite direction and the corner comes off entirely. The print is small and dense; and it is a 2,400 year old account of a war that gets no press. It’s not sexy like the Fall of Troy, not Homerically epic. The gods don’t factor in. The content is almost as hard to love as the way I remember myself when the book first came to me.
I was in eighth grade and my favorite aunt and uncle were moving to a new home. They were young — my aunt Patty is 18 years younger than my father, only eleven years older than I am, and she was everything that I thought was good and exciting in this world. She introduced me to Bon Jovi, and her boyfriend, who would later become my favorite uncle Shawn, had hair as long as hers. He played the drums and loved KISS, and though I never really liked KISS, I started playing the drums because of him. What made them so magnetic, though, was that they took me seriously, always. They took me seriously enough that when they were moving, Shawn opened up his boxes of college textbooks and pulled out a few he thought I would like. One was Thucydides. I don’t remember the others, but I remember that I was the kind of young person an adult (a really groovy adult) thought would like this book. Which is to say I was a grandiose, pretentious little shit. My one defense, perhaps, was that I did actually read the Impressive Books I carried around. If I was pretentious, at least I tried to be an authentic kind of pretentious. I don’t know that I read them well, but read them I did — except Thucydides.
Even at the height of my Homer fanaticism, I don’t remember even opening this book, or even looking at the table of contents. That was 17 years ago.Three degrees. Four moves to four different states. In all of that time, I’ve done nothing more with Thucydides than shelve and unshelve it, box and unbox. Better, more well-loved books have been given away in all of those moves. It’s not even that it has sentimental value — Shawn likely doesn’t even remember that I have it. I don’t think we ever had a conversation about anything approaching the topic, either. I’ve thrown away their wedding card (and everyone else’s). Why keep this book?
The only answer I can think of is that this book was a gauntlet. It’s not that anyone threw it at my feet in challenge, but there it was, the unread reminder, until this past summer.
I was having a conversation on Twitter with a person who I have never actually met, but whose writing I admire and who I like all out of proportion to how much we actually know each other (basically not at all). He brought up The Peloponnesian Waras a personal favorite. All day every day I see people online praising and recommending books, and sometimes I read them but more often I don’t. I’m not sure what about this conversation actually made me pick up Thucydides, but I did. What I found was a strange and most welcome kind of company. It isn’t that Thucydides’ writing (albeit in translation) had anything in common with my own, but (odd as it seems) he sounds like people I know. The sentences are dry and acerbic and often palpably exasperated. In commenting on the Trojan War, Thucydides writes,[T]here is no reason why we should not believe that the Trojan expedition was the greatest that had ever taken place. It is equally true that it was not on the scale of what is done in modern warfare. It is questionable whether we can have complete confidence in Homer’s figures, which, since he was a poet, were probably exaggerated.
Fucking poets (and so say many of us, particularly as we understand that, for Thucydides, the “poet” was anyone involved in the creation of story — whether it was song or play or fireside tale). I am reminded of the person who recommended the book to me, whose incredibly low threshold for bullshit is something I frankly envy. I am reminded of my graduate school friend Patrick, who was cynical, impatient, and incredibly brusque, and also one of the most intelligent, most secretly kind people I’ve ever met.
I love this book for what feel like the wrong reasons. I am used to loving books for their story or their language or the very construction of their sentences — something that says content in one way or another. But I have to admit to only the most passing interest in the matter of the Peloponnesian War. The pretentious eighth grader in me is gratified to know a bit more about it, to say “look at this knowledge I now have,” but the rest of me is often bored by the minutiae of negotiations as Thucydides relates them, and relate them he does. The book contains set speeches, the terms of treaties — as one expects a solid history to do. But there’s also a lot of commentary on the process, on the state of humanity, and Thucydides asks the same questions we are still asking. Thucydides shakes the same crotchety finger I shake at my composition students:
In investigating past history, and in forming the conclusions which I have formed, it must be admitted that one cannot rely on every detail which has come down to us by way of tradition. People are inclined to accept all stories of ancient times in an uncritical way — even when these stories concern their own native countries … Most people, in fact, will not take trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.
And yet, Thucydides is no particularly objective recorder. In discussing his methods for relaying those speeches, he writes,I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.
Thucydides faces the creative nonfiction writer’s dilemma but demonstrates not the slightest bit of doubt in approaching it. He has found his solution to his own satisfaction, and he pushes on, recreating long verbal missives from one camp to another, from one tyrant to the next. It is impossible to read forward with complete academic confidence, then — he confesses to taking liberties not three paragraphs beyond the imprecation to never take anything at face value. But he admits to the taking of liberties, and the prose is so emphatic, so certain. I seldom feel so convinced by myself. I wedge my fingertips between the pages and believe in osmosis.
The translator’s note in my edition, written by Rex Warner, begins, “It is difficult, pleasurable, and bold to attempt to translate Thucydides into English.” Warner’s note explores the doubt that underwrites translation as a whole, the knowledge that something will inevitably be lost in the process, but also that there is so much to be gained from the task. Warner nearly apologizes for his work, but he seems unable to keep himself from attempting the challenge of Thucydides. I like to believe that that’s what my uncle Shawn was thinking when he gave such a book to an adolescent: in reading it well before I was of an age or an experience to understand more than simply the words and events, something would inevitably be lost, if I ever even read it. Reading Thucydides would be difficult, but maybe I would feel bold in doing so, and either in the content or the undertaking, I might find something pleasurable.
I didn’t read it then, and having read it now, I don’t feel bold. The reading was difficult — I couldn’t let my attention lapse for a sentence or two, couldn’t skim if I wanted to know the fullness of the events. I did lapse, though. I did skim. Ultimately, I didn’t care as much as I wanted to about the debate at Camarina. But in Thucydides’s tone, in his interrogation of uncertain facts and his assertion of his own reconstructions, in the way the act of reading re-tied me to people — no matter how little-known or now-distant — there was familiarity and connection, and I can think of no greater pleasure.
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