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What Do Our Oldest Books Say About Us? (newrepublic.com)
77 points by diodorus 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 23 comments





Just for interest, of the set of mutually intelligible Germanic dialects we lump into 'Old English', it was the West Saxon flavor that most of the works referenced in the article are written in.

It must be pointed out that the title is misleading as the article's subject matter is restricted to several books from western Europe.

Thought they meant ancient books from the whole world from all the old civilizations like Egyptians, Roman etc.

I've read Beowulf for a university class and I thought it was boring and unrelatable. I know it's supposed to be some kind of cornerstone of English literature, but I personally feel like it has nothing worthwhile to say to a modern audience.

Maybe it sounds better in the Old English.


There are two opportunities that arise from reading literature from outside of your own culture and time.

One is to have that revelation of "oh, wow, these folks are just like me!"

The other is to have the revelation, "wow, these folks are nothing like me, and here's what they felt was important, beautiful, terrifying, etc"

Both are pretty important, even if the latter doesn't come as naturally. You'll never be completely empathetic to it, but at least you can learn to be sympathetic.


This is what I find fascinating about the annals of Lü Buwei (239bc Qin Dynasty), in that he brought together the best philosophers of the time to create a book of all the knowledge, arts, sciences, food, almanacs and state leadership for future generations. Some of his leadership advice I actually haven’t seen elsewhere and learned from. So exactly what he had in mind after over 2200 years ago.

I think the other thing one realizes with history is how much makes up the present, it’s part of our cultures today. We didn’t invent ideas of equality, women and animal rights, Aristotle references ancient states with these ideals — notably he mentions them as vulnerable to demagogues. Almond milk was used as a milk substitute in medieval French cooking since it’s easier to use. I feel we’re dismisive of previous generations and think of our selves as better when really nothing has changed outside of technology and our physical sciences.


Right on point. We in the modern age -- and technologists especially, and I speak for myself -- are very prone to assuming advances in technology translate to advances in the essence of humanity. The base human condition is still the same, though we may now have easier access to food and modern conveniences, which is certainly good. But the previous generations have so much wisdom that can we learn from, despite their faults.

> Some of his leadership advice I actually haven’t seen elsewhere and learned from.

Intriguing, could you give us a flavour?


One example, the leader of a state shouldn’t be doing anything since this biases their judgment, instead they should always rely on their ministers to be experts, and the fewer decisions one makes the more ideal the leader. It’s not just simple delegation that they’re talking about, it’s that at least on person has to have a clear view of the whole picture to make subtle adjustments, and if the leader is wrapped up in doing the work himself then it’s no longer possible. They have very strong words for leaders who do work themselves as being unfit and bluntly stupid. It certainly resonated for me as being completely correct, and adjusted my management style.

Ah that sounds pretty much the same type of management philosophy as espoused in "Clouds Above The Hill" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saka_no_Ue_no_Kumo

The author attributes the successes of early Imperial Japanese Navy to the men in leadership roles being wise enough to focus on enabling their competent subordinates do their jobs and nothing more. At least a lot early 2nd volume is spent on organization and management structure. Japan spent a lot of time studying Chinese culture so it would make sense that they would addopt similar ideas.

This article https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/07/22/the-talent-myt... claims this "loose tight" for of leadership is responsible for collapse of Enron.


I guess that's true, but IMHO Beowulf tells you nothing about what those ancient people felt. Not a single one of the characters has any inner life or motivation, it's just a chronicle of monster-slaying. You might as well read a poorly written comic book.

What? This is entirely untrue, and I feel bad that you had a teacher or reading experience that did not focus on how much inner life, motivation, and emotion are in this poem. I have had the exact opposite experience: people think of Beowulf as a monster-fighting action poem and are disappointed or surprised when they read it and discover most of the content is songs, conversation, historical reminiscences, and not-fighting.

Take as just one brief example these passages from XXXIV lines 52-7 and XXXV lines 5-7 [0]:

So to hoar-headed hero ’tis heavily crushing

To live to see his son as he rideth

Young on the gallows: then measures he chanteth,

A song of sorrow, when his son is hanging

For the raven’s delight, and aged and hoary

He is unable to offer any assistance.

Every morning his offspring’s departure

Is constant recalled

...

So the helm of the Weders

Hrethel grieves for Herebald.

Mindful of Herebald heart-sorrow carried,

Stirred with emotion, nowise was able

To wreak his ruin on the ruthless destroyer

This is a description of an experience almost (but not totally) unknown in modern American/western culture. To dmreedy's point, this captures the duality that on the one hand, these were humans just like us, and fathers who have lost sons violently in war or crime who are weighed down with the burden of that grief and the inability to do anything, to take any vengeance, can probably identify with this ancient father. These words can be a foil that gives voice to their own hearts. On the other hand, we can consider how different Anglo-Saxon society was by looking at the culture of vengeance and reciprocal warfare that resulted in this son's death. Very few of us even experience war, much less can imagine a life in which we expect every spring/summer to be attacked by, or to go out and attack, some neighboring city.

What forces shaped society to develop those systems? How can we prevent returning to that? What was good about life then - what did the people enjoy, and what was evil? These are all questions that are worth asking and trying to answer. But we only get to explore those questions if we approach these texts, as the article's author states, as texts with presence in time and place, creations of real people from a certain time, encoding their particular moment with all its similarities and differences to ours.

Lastly, it does sound better in Old English [1].

[0] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm#XX...

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROghKY1jmuE

(edit for formatting)


Maybe I'm not explaining myself well -- the passages you've quoted above do tell us in very poetic language that some character is sad that their sons died in battle, but they don't show that, really. As a reader, we have no access to their interior mental state, we just get the narrator's report that Herebald carries "heart-sorrow" (great word!).

Something like this article might explain the distinction I'm not articulating correctly: http://nautil.us/issue/65/in-plain-sight/why-doesnt-ancient-...


If you read Haney's translation, which somehow gets lionized, I don't blame you. Frederick Rebsamen's translation is pretty literal, and since I knew some of the kennings, and the alliterative aspect of Anglo-Saxon poetry (Beowulf doesn't rhyme in the old language), it worked quite well for me. It was one of the great literary experiences of my life, along with Brothers Karamazov, Goethe's Faust, the Iliad and Moby Dick.

I taught myself a good chunk of Anglo-Saxon about 5 years ago specifically to read the elegiac poems in the books mentioned in this article, and Beowulf (which has escaped me so far; need more vocab). It sounds like a big lift, but it really isn't.

FWIIW my parents, baby boomers who went to ordinary high school, read Beowulf in Anglo Saxon, so it used to be a fairly common thing. I need to get back to it to the point where I can read Beowulf. After that, Icelandic is pretty close (I could read menus and such on my visit, despite my faded vocab).

Edit add Bagby's recitation is super great: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROghKY1jmuE


Maybe it helps to think of Beowulf as a "Commodore 64" of the monster slaying genre. It doesn’t have much ram or fast cpu but it was a pretty decent piece of literature from the time period.

I've read it in old english only for a grade eight class, badly taught; and I can assure you that was an even worse idea.

For me, Beowulf really took the wind out of the sails of the epic hero archetype. Ignorance can be bliss.

I thought the same of Canterbury Tales.

The title of article was more interesting than it's contents.

I was also expecting it to be about much older texts, but I guess that was a reading comprehension failure on my part since it did say "books" and not, for example, "stone tablets". As someone who has been (very, very slowly) reading the translations of ancient Sumerian texts, I was kinda hoping this would be about those. But Sumerians didn't write "books".

You got any suggestions for the Sumerian works? I've read The Literature of Ancient Sumer, and made it through, but didn't enjoy it at all and nothing stuck. Attempted From Distant Days (Akkadian literature) but just couldn't do it. Book was poorly put together and it was pretty much the same stuff as the Sumerian book I'd just finished, which wasn't a huge surprise but man that book is bad.

I read all three volumes of Lichtheim's Ancient Egyptian Literature first, though, so that may have spoiled me. It's dry as hell but way better than either of those other volumes. Was good enough that I remember quite a few details and individual works from it years later, unlike those.

I've got about seven volumes of ultra-early literature (the last 1.5 or so of Lichtheim aren't that early), six of which I've read or attempted (haven't made it to the Indian philosophy sourcebook yet, some of which is quite old) and of them the only one I'd recommend to the general reader is Stephen Mitchell's Gilgamesh, which was entirely excellent and so wildly better than any of the other Mesopotamian work from that time that I suspect Mitchell embellished heavily (IIRC reviews indicate he didn't, but still) or the modern version of the work was much improved by the time any of the copies or large fragments we have were written/chiseled. It's crazy good. A couple later Egyptian tales were of similar (though definitely lesser) quality but absolutely nothing else Sumerian or Akkadian's even got a hint of anything like that, from what I've seen.

I'm not sure I'd recommend the Sumerian or Akkadian collections to anyone, really, unless that's their specialty in which case they don't need me to recommend things to them. It's possible I just chose poor collections, though. Certainly the Akkadian one was no good, though I'm not sure there's any better in English.


I've listed the books I have below. I haven't read much of them yet (its slow going). The one that I'm currently in the process of reading is "Myths from Mesopotamia" by Stephanie Dalley. I like it so far, but its not an easy read. It gives you a relatively direct translation of the Sumerian texts, so there are many missing fragments (tablets found in different cities tended to have slightly different versions of the same stories, so you couldn't use them to complete missing bits from tablets from another city). This makes it time consuming to read, but does give you an accurate picture.

The books I have and am slowly trying to get through are:

  "Myths from Mesopotamia" by Stephanie Dalley
  "History Begins At Sumer" by Samuel Noah Kramer
  "Guide To Understanding Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Cananite And Phoenician Tablets, Slabs, Symbols And Cuneiform Inscriptions" by Maximiliien de Lafayette
  "Cuneiform" by Irving Fincel and Jonathan Taylor
  "Sumerian Mythology" by Samuel Noah Kramer
  "Introduction to Sumerian Grammar" by Daniel Foxvog
I'm not far enough through all of them to be able to properly compare and haven't read any other books, so I'm not sure if I would recommend them or not.

The Cuneiform book was fun (if you're interested in Cuneiform) as cuneiform is easy to write and I was able to write my name phonetically :)


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