How does a book become part of a life?
My grandfather, who dedicated his life to Christian mission work in east Asia, performed devotions every morning upon waking. “Bible before breakfast,” he would tell me when I found him seated at the kitchen table, a pocket-sized three ring notebook open in front of him beside a larger hardbound book. To practice his Chinese, he copied and translated passages from a Chinese Bible. He could preach and refer to texts in Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and Cebuano-Visayan, one of the Philippines’ many languages.
My grandfather was raised with one book at the center of his life; it has taken me years to discover a constellation of books worth living with. I did have a Christian upbringing – attended weekly church and church school, learned Bible stories and then how to read the Bible as an adult, was baptized and confirmed and married by two Christian ministers – but the Bible has never been the only text for me. Sometimes I wish it were. It would be so much easier, it seems, to have a single center, but other books have spoken to me in ways I could not ignore. Herodotus’ Histories is one of them.
Like the Bible, Herodotus’ Histories teems with stories, many of which have been retold by other artists for millennia. Like the Bible, it features morality tales but also unreliable narrators, the rise and fall of vast empires and the plucky resourcefulness of the underrated and overlooked. Like the Bible, it has a theology of sorts – don’t grow too tall lest the gods knock you down – and a pantheon of heroes worthy of imitation.
I first encountered The Histories when I was 24. I was living in Oakland, California, a few blocks from the honking geese and shimmying cormorants of Lake Merritt. It was summer, my second summer in the East Bay. I had quit my paralegal job in downtown Manhattan the spring before and moved across the country to study Ancient Greek at Berkeley. None of my New York friends seemed to understand it – “The Bay Area is filled with fucking assholes too,” a partner at my firm told me – but something impelled me toward antiquity. I loved and still love New York City but I also felt preoccupied, distracted, unmoored. The city’s powerful current was carrying me out to sea and if I didn’t pull hard for shore, I’d lose myself altogether.
The intensive summer course in Ancient Greek at Berkeley demanded more of me than anything in my life. Seven hours of class a day, five days a week. Three or four hours of homework on top of that. The assigned text book, grammar, and lexicon weighed more than the bicycle I pedaled over the Piedmont and through the shady Berkeley streets to campus. I cut index cards into quarters to save money and quizzed myself while I paced around the apartment I had sublet. I made up songs for the various verb conjugations and sang them while I jogged around the lake. We completed a year of Greek in six weeks and then tackled whole texts – Sophocles and Plato – for the final month. I shivered in the basement of Bancroft Library while my friends sipped IPAs on Brooklyn stoops. My brain quivered. I was exhausted and elated and I loved it.
After the first summer of intensive Greek, I returned for a second summer of intensive Latin. With my Greek vigorous and strapping, Latin came more easily. It was like when I had switched from trumpet to French horn in middle school band: different mouthpiece, varied fingering, but the same mechanics of embouchure, tongue, and breath. The grammar was nearly identical and the vocabulary familiar. After six weeks focused solely on Latin, I joined the Greek reading course for the final month. The text would be Herodotus’ Histories.
Keats likens his encounter with John Chapman’s translation of Homer to when European explorers first sighted water on the other side of Central America – “. . . like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men / Look’d at each other with a wild surmise.” When I began to read Greek – actually to read it, not just to parse and decipher it but to hear and understand it – the same feeling came over me. A new planet swam into my ken. A wild surmise took hold.
“Greek is madness,” I wrote in my journal during that first summer. “Yet I love the madness.” Passion, pulse, and power. The aesthetics of the letters on the page, all tight angles and solid lines. My voice rose and fell with acute, grave, and circumflex accents. Books of Greek were designed for rereading: thick pages, wide margins, a durable heaviness you knew by its heft. I made a small dot with my pencil beside words I looked up in my lexicon, learning to memorize the word when the dots grew numerous. I discovered commentaries, centuries-long conversations about interpolations, scribal errors, and ambiguous syntax. Marginalia became a topic of conversation. Philology took shape as a history and discourse.
Herodotus’ sentences were serpentine yet solid. You could read them from beginning to end and hear their sense even before you looked up the many unfamiliar words. Herodotus employed an enormous vocabulary and even in the first book of The Histories, before his anthropological interests spread their digressive tentacles, he did not hold back from intricate descriptions of terrains and strange customs and architecture. There was exotic music here, music that immediately beguiled my attention.
“Wonder” is a keyword for Herodotus. He finds wonders along the course of his inquiries: marvelous creatures like the phoenix or miraculous human feats like a miles-long tunnel dug by the Samians to access both sides of their island. Herodotus also illustrates how wonder is a beneficial response to a complex and diverse world. Responding with wonder to something strange or new keeps at bay the destructive tendency to simplify and reduce the world. Wonder resists the human impulse to control and subdue complexity by reducing it to something knowable or comparable. Across his many stories, Herodotus shows how attempts to control lead to suffering, both for the would-be master and the objects of his (yes, it’s always “his”) mastery. Exuding wonder, Herodotus peers into the friction between humans and non-humans, the world and its “worlding,” life’s being made and remade. His wonder exemplifies a stance of intrigued and humbled curiosity, a comportment that lets the strange stay strange while examining it with patient diligence, turning it slowly in his hand as a child would gaze at an iridescent seashell.
I never had a chance to talk to my grandfather about Herodotus. He suffered a stroke about the same time I started learning Greek and deteriorated slowly after that. When I wonder about how books become part of a life, however, I think of a story he often told me. After losing touch with his adopted Chinese sister – and fearing she had died during the Cultural Revolution – he heard news of her and made plans to visit. When he arrived at the border crossing point, the Chinese customs officer requested that he open his luggage. The officer discovered some 40 pounds of Bibles.
“You will not be permitted to take all of these books,” she told him.
“But,” he protested in Chinese, “we are going to see our Chinese friends whom we have not seen for more than thirty years. We cannot meet them without carrying some gifts. And many of them are Christians and pastors. These are the books that they want and appreciate.” The officer sought her manager. He approached, surveyed the books, and repeated the order. My grandfather protested once more. He waited. The officer looked away for a moment and then waved him through. “Don’t let it happen again!” He said.
My grandfather always told this story with a smile of mischief. He didn’t try to hide the books. He didn’t lie. He insisted – and he spoke the truth. His friends did want these books. He gave them all away, I’m sure. I’ve not yet convinced a suspicious border officer that my Herodotus is a book friends would want and appreciate, but that doesn’t mean I’m not ready to. His stories have taught me to live and that itself is a gift worth the risk.