Classics Library's Books of Note

Cat and Books

The “Classics Books of Note” is a feature of the Classics Library by which we highlight individual treasures among our extensive and world-renowned collections. The books are displayed physically in the Library’s main Reading Room. One of our graduate students, Ph.D. candidate Angelica Wisenbarger, posted descriptions of the books chosen on Facebook last year.  This year Ms. Wisenbarger is finishing her dissertation, so we are inviting others (students, faculty, staff, the public) to pick "Classics Books of Note." 

JA History of Reading by Alberto Manguel.  London: HarperCollins, 1996.

Even though it is not strictly a book dealing with classical studies, antiquity features prominently beginning with Aristotle and Virgil. The book reads as much as a work of fiction as a history lesson. It is not a diachronic survey of the history of reading. Instead, Manguel recounts his own joy of reading and the importance of reading and erudition for the development of art, history, philosophy, science and religion. An irritating, but I suspect to many readers delightful, element is the book’s somewhat erratic and disjointed organization.  However, his accounts of bookstore explorations in Tel Aviv, Cyprus, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Paris, and in his former home town of Buenos Aires are fascinating. I laughed when I learned of our mutual enjoyment of Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair series before learning that English librarians had branded them “sexist and snobbish.” Just like me as a young adult, he also enjoyed the novels of Jules Verne and Charles Dicken’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He tells of his experience when Jorge Luis Borges came into a bookstore in which he worked dusting (and occasionally stealing!) books as a 16-year-old. The famed author asked Manguel if he would be free to read to him in the evening as he was almost blind, to which Manguel agreed although Borges was not well-known to him at that time. Manguel subsequently spent many evenings being introduced to world literature, and especially to Anglo-Saxon literature, Kipling, Stevenson, Henry James, which Borges favored at the time although Borges' 88-year-old mother felt that he “should study something useful like Latin and Greek” instead.

An interesting chapter is “The Silent Readers”. In antiquity, reading was done out loud. Saint Augustine makes note of a rarity. Bishop Ambrose of Milan perused pages in silence. Although not discussed here, an interesting question to examine is that change from open recital to silent reading and how that may have impacted intellectual history as well as the human brain. He does muse about what it might have been like to visit libraries in antiquity such as that of the famed Library of Alexandria. One of the most popular depictions of modern libraries is the shushing librarian, but since reading generally meant recital in antiquity, what might the experience have been like when entering a Greek or Roman library?  Another interesting observation is that although the codex was a pagan invention, it became an important tool for the spread of Christianity as did the printing press many centuries later and as did silent reading. The practice of religion could now be a highly personal and individual act. Another interesting reference is to the first official trial for heresy by a group of canons and lay nobles who believed that real instruction could only come from the Light of the Holy Spirit and rejected the Scriptures as “the fabrication which men have written on the skins of animals.”

Another chapter, earlier in time, is “The Book of Memory”. For Socrates, Manguel says, referring to Plato’s account in Phaedrus, a text read was nothing but its words, in which sign and meaning overlapped. Interpretation, exegesis, gloss, commentary, etc., all rose not from the text itself but from the reader. For Socrates books were aid to memory and knowledge but true scholars were to do without them.

A particularly enjoyable chapter is “The Shape of the Book.” Manguel notes that throughout the ages the most popular book form was that which fit comfortably in a hand. Even in Greece and Rome where scrolls were used, private missives were usually written on small hand-held reusable wax tablets. One of the most popular codices in the Middle Ages was the personal prayer book, The Book of Hours, also a common wedding gift. We have a few leaves from Books of Hours in the Classics Library and there is an entire Book of Hours in the Archives and Rare Books Library on the 8th floor of the Blegen building. However, large volumes served other purposes. Around the 15th century the Catholic Church began producing huge service books – missals, chorales, antiphonaries – which displayed on a lectern in the middle of the choir. The Classics Library has a complete original copy of one of these oversize choir psalters.

In order to be able to read books comfortably, many contraptions were invented.  In 1588 an Italian engineer, Agostino Ramelli, published a book describing a whole series of machines, one of them being the dreadfully named “cockfighting chair” (so called because it was depicted in illustrations of cockfights) with seat and desk in one. The reader sat astride it, facing the small “desk” at the back of the chair while leaning on the broad armrests for support and comfort.  It was made specifically for libraries. I can definitely see its usefulness for either a book or a laptop/iPad to rest on the “desk” above the chair, in perfect eye level, and to fit nicely into ever vanishing physical spaces as book collections grow. Another fantastic reading machine is one that is referred to as “Ramelli’s Wheel”. I am thinking that multiple editions of texts could be placed on each shelf and then rotate up and down. Bert S. Hall describes the machine as “a small-scale Ferris wheel, but in place of seats it has shelves for books which are set at an angle of approximately 45 degrees with respect to the floor” (Technology and Culture 11:3 (July 1970) p. 389).  It certainly beats both laying editions for textual criticism out on a table or maximizing and minimizing a computer screen. If Covid-19 ever ends and the fiscal situation improves, I would like to ask the UC carpenter shop to create something like that for our classical philologists! There is a section on the Aldine pocket-book, soon imitated by Gryphius in Lyon, Estienne in Paris, Elsevir in Leiden. This format made books less expensive and available to a wider readership. However, large size books continued to be published, in fact, so many that Gustave Doré drew a cartoon of a clerk at Bibliothèque Nationale trying to move one of these enormous tomes. John James Audubon’s Birds of America in elephant folio format left its author impoverished as sadly it did not sell much. It is a beautiful book but does not fit most bookcases well. Heart shaped, perfumed fan, movable or pop-up, and miniscule books were popular gifts. Then came Penguin with its mass-produced small paperbacks of the World’s Classics, inexpensive and perfect for train travel, and publishing and reading were transformed into big business.

Another chapter, “Stealing Books”, recounts the story of one of the most prolific thieves Conte Libri-Carucci della Somaia, born in Florence in 1803 to a noble family. He, usually simply referred to as Libri, was even offered the chair in mathematics at the University of Pisa and became professor of science at the Sorbonne, so money, an illustrious career, honor and smarts were not lacking. Unfortunately, Libri seems to have suffered from bibliokleptomania. His academic credentials gave him access to libraries across France from which he stole entire volumes but also cut out single pages which he arrogantly, or insanely, exhibited and sold.

You don’t have to be a librarian to enjoy and learn from The History of Reading. It’s a perfect distraction during these trying times.  

Submitted by Rebecka Lindau, head.


Johnathan Shay, MD. Achilles in Vietnam. Scribner 1995.

When Dr. Jonathan Shay, a staff psychiatrist for the Department of Veterans Affairs, was confined to bedrest after a heart attack, he turned to literature to pass the time. As he read the Iliad, he was struck by the similarities between Achilles and his patients, American combat veterans with severe, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. Shay published his observations in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, and Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy encouraged Shay to develop the article into a book, Achilles in Vietnam.

The pattern of trauma suffered by Achilles—betrayal of what’s right, shrinking social and moral horizons, grief at the death of a special comrade, guilt and wrongful substitution, and the berserk state—is the very same pattern of trauma that causes the most severe cases of modern combat-induced PTSD. Shay’s description and analysis of the psychological damage experienced by Vietnam veterans provides ancient scholars with a nuanced and humane understanding of Achilles’ motivations and decisions.

The book received high praise from veterans, military historians, and classicists alike, and Shay received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2007 for his work. Most reviewers pointed out that, in order to understand the Iliad and Achilles, it is necessary to understand war and combat first-hand, an experience that is completely unknown to most modern scholars who study the ancient world. In my own experience, Achilles in Vietnam fundamentally changed the way I read and taught the Iliad. It provided me with a sympathetic reading of the character of Achilles. It also provided my students with an accessible approach to an intimidating work. Most importantly, Shay’s work reveals the enduring and immediate relevance of the Iliad.

Praise for Achilles in Vietnam:

“Without appreciating the nature of war and its impact on those involved in it, whether as soldiers or civilians, we cannot hope to understand Greek literature or culture. If we ignore Achilles in Vietnam and its implications for tragedy, comedy, and every other genre of literature, we run the risk of continuing to be baffled by the obvious.” Sally Goetch

“A transcendent literary adventure. His compassionate book deserves a place in the lasting literature of the Vietnam War.” Herbert Mitgang, New York Times

“I have read Achilles in Vietnam carefully and with great emotion. Achilles in Vietnam is a truly great achievement.” Gregory Nagy, Harvard University


Jonathan Shay, MD. “Learning about combat stress from Homer’s Iliad.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 4:561-579.


Sally Goetch in Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Class Stacks: RC550.S53 1995

Submitted by Shannan Stewart, library specialist.


Jessup, Ronald Frederick, compiler. Curiosities of British Archaeology. London: Butterworth, 1961; [Chichester, Sussex] Phillimore, [c1974][2nd ed.].

What naturally caught my eye was an early 18th c. poem describing a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries. The learned members were examining an “ancient” coin whose details were obscured by corrosion. One member claimed that its bluish patina indicated an “Attic hue” , hence it was Greek, while another worthy pronounced it a noble Roman coin based upon details only he could make out. This goes on for, as I say, 8 pages, until the serving boy named Tom, looks at it and pronounces it a worn half penny. Chaos and fighting result, and the poem ends:

“The tempest ey’d, Tom speeds his flight,
And, sneering, bids ‘em all good night;
Convinc’d that pedantry’s allies
May be too learned to be wise.”

CLASS Stacks: On order for $2. 98 on Amazon. Also available online from the Internet Archive.

Submitted by Mike Braunlin, bibliographer and numismatist.


September 2019

Thompson, Henry Yates. A descriptive catalogue of the second series of fifty manuscripts (nos. 51 to 100) in the collection of Henry Yates Thompson. The notices contributed by various hands. Cambridge [Eng.] University Press, 1902. England. nos. 51-61.--II. Low countries. nos. 62-67.--III. France. nos. 68-87--IV. France and Italy. no. 88.--V. Italy. nos. 89-96.--VI. Miscellaneous. nos. 97-100. This post and book is for all interested in illuminated medieval manuscripts and palaeography of which the Library possesses a superb study collection developed by John Miller Burnam (professor of Latin palaeography,1900-1921) and others.
CLASS Stacks  Z6623 .T591

July 2019

Lipsius, Justus. Iusti Lipsi Physiologiae stoicorum libri tres: L. Annaeo Senecae, aliisque scriptoribus illustrandis. Antverpiae, Ex officina Plantiniana, apud Ioannem Moretum, 1610. Angelica continues to inform about the history of printing. This time from a trip to Antwerp, Belgium, where Lipsius' book on Stoicism and Seneca was printed.
CLASS Rare Books B528 .L5 1610

May 2019

Pollard, Alfred W. Last Words on the History of the Title-Page with notes on some colophons and twenty-seven fac-similes of title-pages. London: J. C. Nimmo, 1891. For enthusiasts of the history of the book and printing. 
CLASS Oversize  Z242.T6 P6  

April 2019

Mnemosyne. This month’s book is actually a journal, one of the longest running classics journals, since 1852. It has a complicated publication history but is currently published bimonthly by Brill in Leyden.
CLASS Journals PA1 .M6

March 2019

Aristophanis comoediae undecum cum scholiis; codex Ravennas 137, 4, ALyon:Sijthoff, 1904. Preface by Jan van Leeuwen. This is a facsimile of one of the oldest (second half of the 10th century) and most authoritative manuscripts of the works of Aristophanes and it includes all eleven fully preserved plays.
CLASS Paleog Elephant Z114 .C67 t.9

February 2019

Inghirami, Francesco. Galleria omerica; o, Raccolta di monumenti antichi esibita dal cav. Francesco Inghirami, per servire allo studio dell'Iliade e dell'Odissea. [Firenze]: Poligrafia fiesolana, 1829-36. This 3 volume set features hand-colored illustrations to Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey, which makes the stories in the epics come alive even more.
CLASS Wall 5 N5633 .I5

December 2018

Publius Terentius Afer. London: Pickering, 1822. This miniature book contains the comedies of Roman playwright Terence (c. 195/185–c. 159? BCE): Andria (the Girl from Andros), Eunuchus, Heauton Timorumenos (the Self-Tormentor), Hecyra (the Mother-in-Law), Adelphoe (the Brothers), Phormio.
CLASS Glass Case 2 PA6755 .A2 1822

November 2018

Boutell, Charles. Monumental Brasses and Slabs: A Historical and Descriptive Notice of the Incised Monumental Memorials of the Middle Ages. London, 1847. This book contains many cool illustrations. Angelica has printed out a few of them to color for anyone so inclined. The book, the Facebook post, and the loose leaves for classicists to color are on the "Book of the Month" table in the Reading Room. An item such as this also speaks to the depth and breadth of our collections that go beyond strictly classical antiquity to encompass its post-classical influences as well.
CLASS Stacks NK7808 .B6

October 2018

Plautus. Codex Heidelbergensis 1613 Palatinus C. phototypice editus; praefatus est Carolus Zangemeister. This is a facsimile of a Plautus manuscript currently housed in the Universitätsbibliothek in Heidelberg (Ms. Pal. Lat. 1613). It contains most of Roman playwright Plautus' plays, including the Mostellaria.  The editor of the Classics Library's facsimile is Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Zangemeister. Mostellaria is one of Plautus' funniest and most popular plays and chosen for Halloween month. 
CLASS Paleography Elephant Z114 .C67 t. 5

September 2018

Piet de Jong's Fifty-Five Caricatures of Friends and Associates, Chiefly Archaeologists in Greece, circa 1923-1936De Jong's caricature drawing of Carl Blegen is of course famous and it hangs on one of the walls in the main Reading Room. Many other archaeologists are also featured such as Humfry Payne, Hetty Goldman, and Winifred Lamb. Not all flattering but very funny and as all great caricatures they capture a distinctive part of the essence of the subjects.
CLASS Glass Case 1  CC110 .D4

July 2018

Thesaurus Linguae Latinae. The monumental multi-volume Latin dictionary covering the origin of the language to Isidore of Seville (d. 636). 
CLASS Ref. Oversize  PA2361.T5

June 2018

Margarete Bieber's Griechische Kleidung. A first of its kind and a classic from 1928 by Columbia University professor Bieber.
Berlin; Leipzig: Walter de Gruyter.
CLASS Oversize GT550.B56

May 2018

Venetian legal manuscripts on parchment in the rare book room. This particular document deals with property rights and is dated to 1566. Vicenza, Italy.

April 2018

Wild Flowers of Cyprus (drawings by Elektra Megaw; text by Desmond Meikle). London: Phillimore, 1973.
CLASS Elephants QK339.C92 M4

March 2018

Vol. 2 of Ovid’s Opera with the Metamorphoses. Daniel Heinsius ed.
Leiden: Elzevir, 1629.
CLASS Rare Books PA6519 .A2 1629 v.2

February 2018

Vol. 3 of Plato’s Opera Omnia with the Dialogues to Gorgias, Io, Philebus, Neno.
Leipzig: Carl Tauchnitz, 1850.
Annotated by one of the book’s previous owners, philologist Émile Thomas.
CLASS Stacks PA4279 .A2 1850 t.3

January 2018

Cato’s De agri cultura, and Varro’s Res rusticae.
Paris: Robert Estienne, 1543.
With commentary by Piero Vetteri.
CLASS Rare Books PA6271 .C7 1543