Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Reading for Friends (or, “How to Get Smarter”)

The wickedly exciting combination of being overbold and enjoying even limited philological training will allow you to do something quite special: read for friends. Now I don’t mean the kind of “fun reading” that one does on the living room couch or at the beach. That kind of reading of, say, a good novel is almost a holy act—it is purifying for the soul, for it provides the soul with something more than just fun; it gives it pause, a different kind of pause, too, than simply being still and reflecting. Yes, that kind of reading is as good for you as the alarmingly named Grape Nuts (probably) are. Grape Nuts taste healthy, at the very least, even though their name remains one of the most unsolvable mysteries of modern food science, as they are made of neither grapes nor nuts in the same way that the drink known as an “egg cream” includes neither eggs nor cream.

egg cream

But I wander too far afield. Rather I prefer to speak about reading for friends or rather for one friend at a time, for that is all one can do. One reads one’s friend’s book or article as it comes off the pen, and one gives feedback. I can recall doing this for a friend of mine who taught at Rutgers years ago—he wrote a book on the Martini and, indeed, I have never met anyone who knew more about that particular drink than the famous Lowell Edmunds. And I have been doing it today for another friend who is writing on the topic of reading and writing in antiquity. Exhilarating—and, no, I’m not being facetious!

And if one reads for one’s friends, one learns a lot. One learns about topics ranging from Renaissance Latin to Columella’s poem entitled, in English, “On the Rustic Thing.” One of Columella’s more famous quotes is, of course, “Thus far the tillage of the land.” And one can learn about Hellenistic poetry, Medieval art, the history of troop movements at the Battle of the Bulge, statue busts—you name it. You can learn a lot by reading your friends drafts.

And one or two of you are right now thinking, “Great! But how can I ever get the chance to do so? I know so few scholars personally. Well, the answer to that good question is pretty simple: go to your local college’s espresso bar, if you are lucky enough to have one—by “one” here I mean a college or university, of course—and intentionally eavesdrop (scholars rarely notice eavesdroppers), and then introduce yourself. After you get to know the scholar, whose résumé you might well have checked out online in advance for this very purpose, you can say, “So, what are you working on these days,” even though you know already the answer is “The Three Bar Sigma and Re-dating of Important Greek Inscriptions” or “Secondary Characters in Beowulf” or “The Use of the Subjunctive in Cervantes.”

Yes, you more or less stalked him or her so you could say, “Wow, that’s right up my alley—I have just been refreshing my Don Quixote, my study of Greek epigraphy,” or the like.

And then he or she will say, “Smashing! Perhaps you would like to read an article I am preparing on ML 84” (where ML is short for Meiggs and Lewis, i.e. a standard epigraphical collection; the eighty fourth entry lays out various payments from the treasury of Athena and is dated to 410/09 B.C.).

And when you read this person’s article you will definitely get smarter. And that is a good thing, even if it is not the same as the “holy time” you might have enjoyed reading a novel at the beach. And, yes, I do recommend both; but the summer is still a long way off, so perhaps you should head to that local college’s espresso bar now and learn about the three bar sigma, which is not at all, as it sounds, a fraternity drinking game but rather just a fancy Greek “S”.

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