Why “great books” really do matter

Why Homer MattersIn his eponymous work, Adam Nicolson explains why Homer matters and his comments also apply to other authors such as Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Joyce. Nicolson suggests, “Homer matters because Homer, in a godlike way, understands what mortals do not. He even understands more than the gods, who emerge from the poems [Iliad and Odyssey] as sometimes terrifying but unreliable, intemperate and eventually ridiculous beings. That is his value, a reservoir of understanding beyond the grief and turbulence of a universe in which there is no final authority.”

It would be absurd to have others read great books for you and then provide summaries of what you need to know in order to convince others that you are well-read, that you are in a word an “intellectual.”

I agree with Nicolson about Homer’s importance: “He provides no answers. Do we surrender to authority? Do we abase ourselves? Do we indulge the self? Do we nurture civility? Do we nourish violence? Do we love? Homer says nothing in response to those questions; he merely dramatizes their reality. The air he breathes is the complexity of life, the bubbling vitality of a boat at sea, the resurgent energy, as he repeatedly says, of the bright wake starting to gleam behind you.”

Don’t take Nicolson’s word — or anyone else’s — for Homer’s greatness. Experience it yourself at full strength. Read his Iliad and Odyssey. I favor Robert Fagles’ translation of each, available in a paperbound volume in the Penguin Classics series. Bernard Knox provides an insightful and comprehensive introduction to each epic.

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