Wednesday, March 18, 2015

James J. O'Donnell

James J. O'Donnell is a classicist who served for ten years as Provost of Georgetown University and is now University Librarian at Arizona State University. He is the author of several books including Augustine, The Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Avatars of the Word. He is the former president of the American Philological Association, a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, and the chair of the Board of Directors of the American Council of Learned Societies.

O'Donnell's new book is Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I started reading with the back of a milk carton. At age five, I asked my parents what “homogenized” meant, rather startling them I think. The great tragedy of my life is that eight years later I had a shot at winning the El Paso TX annual grand spelling bee, for a trip to the national championship, and the word I missed was the other one I learned that day at age five, “pasteurize” – “p-a-s-t-u-r-i-z-e”, I said, triggering the fatal ding.

I haven’t stopped reading since, so to ask what I’m reading now requires a definition of “now” measured in femtoseconds. Pick your instant and ask me and I wonder will it be the antiquarian bookseller’s essays on the booktrade on my nightstand, or the little hardcover copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets underneath it that had better get back in my suitcase quick quick before my trip this weekend, since it’s my emergency print-when-the-iPad-fails carryalong ready to delight and absorb me anywhere. It will have competition this time, though, because I just bought a non-Maigret novel of Simenon, Dirty Snow, reprinted by the New York Review of Books in their classy paperback series.

And am I “reading” Caesar’s War for Gaul when I work away at translating it, trying to give him for the first time an English translation that does justice to his literary and stylistic skill? But doing that means reading German commentaries and the like. It’s the best book ever written by a really bad man telling us, with no shame at all, just how bad he’s been, and it’s chock full of embarrassing things he’s not saying. How does a translator manage to slip in all the dirty politics that he’s at pains not to mention? Can I love him and despise him at the same time?

And I’ve just been unpacking my books in a new office, which is a wonderful pleasure and a terrible temptation. Waves of longing overtake me – oh, to be reading Proust! oh, could I spend a month on a desert island with Rilke? Byzantine adventure poetry now there’s the stuff! And is that Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus I see on my iPad, the Thirty Years War equivalent of Catch 22, comic action in the mid of the worst war anybody had ever seen? Thucydides, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, someday I’ll read them as they deserve to be read – and squeeze in a raft of Hilary Mantel and Iris Murdoch and Flann O’Brien in the bargain.

Oh, as Pooh used to say, help and bother!
Learn more about Pagans at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue