Sunday, 1 November 2009

Review: It's a Don's Life

By Mary Beard
Profile Books £8.99

Professor Mary Beard's Times-based blog - covering, among other things, ancient history, modern university politics and the relationship between academia and the "real world" - has long been one of my favourite places on the Interweb. So I'm delighted, if a little jealous, that it has been turned into a book.

A Don's Life was commissioned by the TLS and Beard was, initially, a reluctant blogger. Neither are good signs. MSM sites are littered with semi-compulsory blogs by journalists, the vast majority dull and unread. But she turned out to be a natural blogger, infectiously enthusiastic, generous with the gleanings of her research, not scared of gossip and with an interesting life to talk about. She has opinions, too: on why anyone should bother learning Latin (to read Tacitus in the original, not to gain a deeper insight into Harry Potter); on politics (well to the Heresiarch's left, yet I often find herself in agreement with her); on the differences and similarities between the ancient world and our own (she writes that "it was actually very different in almost every possible respect", yet continually finds points of contact, echoes if not direct parallels).

She's a great defender of the idea of the university as a place of liberal education - an old fuddy-duddy, in other words - and protests against the widespread belief that Oxbridge is "elitist" (i.e. "posh" - I sincerely hope Cambridge remains intellectually elitist, otherwise what's the point?) Today, for example, she offers a very effective demolition of Peter Mandelson's "consumer revolution" in higher education:

In twenty years time, I am afraid we will look back and wonder what happened to the "education" in higher education. We will have no doubt that the blame for turning them into training establishments at the behest of business (which is almost certainly where they will end up if things go on the way they are) lay with the Labour government of the early 2000s.

I do hope someone's paying attention (Michael Gove, for example). But back to the book.

Not everyone will find tales of academic life - much of which revolves around lecturing, sitting on committees and poring over old books - intrinsically compelling, but there's plenty of humour and fascination even here - on the markedly different ways in which Americans and Italians treat conferences, for example, or the politics of the coffee machine, or how Cambridge now gives its dons media training to enable them them to behave more like politicians (their main fault in interview situations, it seems, being an almost perverse desire to answer the question being put to them). And there's a sprinkling of the truly bizarre. Apparently, there's a theory that Kennedy's Latin Primer (beloved, or not, by generations of schoolboys) contains a secret gay code - a subject fit for Dan Brown, surely.

Mary Beard doesn't pretend that her subject has any great relevance to modern life - or, indeed, that it should - yet she can't help using the past to illuminate the present. It's hard not to: the vast span of time separating the ancient world from our own can make it an irresistible distorting mirror (Septimius Severus as Rome's Obama?) - and, however much Classics has faded from most school timetables, much of antiquity remains familiar and newsworthy. When a dubious "bust of Caesar" is dug up or Athenian pagans attempt to reclaim the Parthenon, Beard is on the case; her site is certainly the first place I turn to for reliable and hype-free comment on Classics-based news stories, and she rarely disappoints.

Happily, the books contains a fair selection of comments. A Don's Life is the only blog I read regularly of whose comments I am jealous. Heresy Corner regulars are such a well-informed, good-humoured, level-headed lot on the whole that I feel myself immensely blessed. Especially when I read some of the raving, ranting, pig-headedness and borderline insanity to be found in the comments sections of certain other leading blogs (which I am, of course, far too polite to single out by name). But Beard probably wins the palm. At times, reading the comments on her blogs feels like eavesdropping on a High Table conversation in the days of Bowra and John Sparrow.

One major gripe. Infuriatingly, there's no index, nor even a contents page, which means that unless you want to read the book from cover to cover (which, however enticing the content, is a decidedly strange way of reading a book like this) it becomes a lucky dip. This might not matter so much, except that the articles are sprinkled with fascinating little stories and nuggets of information which can easily get lost.

A product like this raises an obvious question: do books-of-blogs actually work? Some people think not. Beard quotes Thomas Jones in the London Review of Books as saying that books and blogs "are as different as two kinds of published text can be", a blog being "non-linear, always unfinished, ever open" - and with links, which a book can't have. At least until a viable electronic book format comes along (hint: it isn't Kindle). This is true, but also I think irrelevant. A book of blog posts is no more objectionable than a book of collected newspaper columns or a published diary. More than two thousand years ago someone thought Cicero's letters to Atticus worth publishing, and a letter is intrinsically as ephemeral as a blog-post. More so: most letters, after all, aren't intended for a wide audience, while bloggers with any ambition in the genre fret constantly over their stats.

In the end, it's the quality of the writing that matters. If something's worth reading, it's worth putting in a book. Good writing, like good music, shines shines through whichever medium delivers it. Bad writing, though, is brutally exposed on the page. On the other hand, good writing deserves the permanence that comes with printing. And (this may be a consequence my unreconstructed pre-digital personality) the printed page is easier to look at, as well as being more leisurely - preferable, indeed, in almost every respect.

Inevitably, perhaps, I found myself wondering how blogs would have fared in the ancient world. I can't imagine the Greeks taking to the medium: in fact, one big difference between the Greeks and the Romans, from our point of view, is that we have some access to the Romans' interior lives (or, at least, we think that we do) through letters and biographies. But I can easily imagine the blogs of famous Romans.

Caesar would have been direct and self-glorifying; the third person style, possible on blogs, would have suited him personally. "Today Caesar crossed a river and slaughtered a thousand Gauls." In fact, the Gallic War reads rather like a blog. Cicero would have been another enthusiastic blogger; he would have become involved in serious flame-wars, I suspect. Nero would have Twittered. Marcus Aurelius' Meditations actually is a blog, in all but name. The Roman blog I'd really love to read is, though, is Messalina's. She'd have made Belle de Jour look as though she wasn't trying. Or perhaps that's just ancient tittle-tattle.