A New Sublime: Ten Timeless Lessons on the Classics by Piero Boitani translated by Ann Goldstein
Boitani’s presentation of the classics is as entertaining and unexpected as it is informative. He invites the reader to discover the timeless beauty and wisdom of ancient literature, highlighting its profound and surprising connections to the present. With their emphasis on the mutability and fluidity of identity and matter, their examination of the power and position of women in society, and their enduring treatments of force and subjugation, fate and free will, the ethical life, hospitality, love, compassion, and mysticism, the classics play active roles in our lives and can help us refine our opinions and our values. Ranging from Homer to Tacitus, with Thucydides, Aristotle, Sophocles, Cicero, and many others in between, Boitani’s A New Sublime is a fresh, inspiring reminder of the enduring importance and beauty of the classics of the Western canon.
Of course, I found flashes of connection, particularly regarding morality when there’s a conflict between conscience and the laws of the state. But I struggled to conceptualise that alongside cultures were slave-owning goes unquestioned, ditto an empire with a founding myth based on rape.
Wayfinding: The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way by Michael Bond
We begin with the first wayfinders: homo sapiens who travelled thousands of miles from their origins in Africa without the aid of a compass, never mind GPS. We move to our individual beginnings in childhood, and how the loss of the freedom to explore their neighbourhoods unsupervised risks diminishing millennials’ ability to construct the mind maps that enable us to move around. (As an over reliance on GPS systems might also be doing.)
Neuroscience (admittedly mostly derived from research on rats and mice) has recently isolated the specific brain cells associated with spatial awareness from which we might build our mental maps: cells firing for place, head direction, grid (marking our position in space) and boundary (indicating our distance and direction from walls and other edges). Interestingly, an earlier study identifying the elements of urban design enabling city-dwellers to form a clear mental picture of their surroundings provides real-world support for these factors (p186). If our physical surroundings lack paths, edges, connection points and landmarks, it’s harder to get around. Step inside a building and it’s even harder, as anyone who has ever shopped in IKEA can testify.
As a walker who frequently seesaws between the anxiety and excitement of getting lost, I was particularly interested in the chapters on navigation in rural settings and how search and rescue report data shows that, when lost, we often compound the problem. Instead of staying put and waiting to be found, or at least taking a breather in order to plan our next move, anxiety drives us forward, either walking in circles (the consequence of us all having one leg slightly longer than the other) or tramping further away from our intended goal. This chapter on the psychology of lost almost gave me palpitations, even though I would never stray as far from the path for a toilet break as a woman who died of this on the Appalachian Trail (eighty paces is way too far), I often fail to look back to check the lie of the land for the return journey, despite having been trained to do so. (I have been lost going to the toilet, but that was in rural Zimbabwe in the middle of the night.)
Perhaps I’m not a very proficient navigator? Reading the chapter on individual differences, I kept changing my mind. I was unimpressed with the self-report sense-of-direction scale reproduced in the book, but would love to try the visual simulations if I ever got the chance. On the plus side, I was able to explore in childhood and still delight in constructing and extending my mental maps. On the other hand, as an introvert, I don’t observe my surroundings as much as I ought to and, although I passed a navigation exam as part of my ranger training, my skills might have atrophied through an overreliance on familiar routes. But I can’t blame any navigational weakness on gender: having read Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine, I didn’t need Michael Bond to debunk the myth that women are worse wayfinders than men.
Has this book motivated me to put in more practice? The chapter on Alzheimer’s might have done. There’s a reasonable, but unproven, suggestion that finding our way through constructing cognitive maps of an area, as opposed to passively following a route (as with GPS, for example) might afford some protection against the ultimate disorientation. I was heartened to read of a project to fit Alzheimer’s sufferers with GPS trackers so they could wander at will in relative safety, and saddened also that it was discontinued due to funding issues. Tragic that the tendency to walk (often in a straight line, apparently) so common among Alzheimer’s patients (perhaps, like people lost in a forest, instinctively trying to find themselves) should be suppressed.
My final reflections stem from the observation that our memories are intertwined with the places in which the event occurred. Nothing happens nowhere, which is why setting, even if only lightly sketched, is fundamental to telling convincing stories. As readers we need those details to ground us in fictional space; as writers we need to provide it (and where our characters are is much more important than what those characters look like). Thanks to publishers Picador for my proof copy.
My short story “Tobacco and Testosterone” combines the geographical and psychological experience of being lost when a man, struggling to come to terms with the changing dynamics of his family, becomes disorientated in Morocco. You can hear me read the opening in the video, or read it for yourself in my collection, Becoming Someone. Or you can get it for free, along with four other stories, if you register for my email newsletter. Click on either of the images for more information.
I received this flash fiction challenge after posting these reviews but my 99 words couldn’t go anywhere else but here. I hope this character isn’t a future version of me. Meanwhile, regarding ageing, I’m with Caroline Lodge today discussing older women writers.
Planed wood. Woven fabric. Sheeted glass. Makes? Not her place. Not her clothes. Not her smell.
So she walks. She walks and she walks. Away from this nowhere. To a? To find.
A white painted line guides her. A white line smack in the middle of the road ahead. It centres her. Keeps her straight. Until.
It swings. The lovely road swings away. Curves. If she follows she’ll topple. Off the edge of the earth.
She walks. Straight. Wall-grazed knees. Bush-scratched arms. Pool-wet feet.
Through his kitchen window, Mike spots her in his fishpond. Calls the care home. Again.