Thursday, June 9, 2011

Beware of Customers Bearing Lists of Greeks

Summer reading list season is upon me right now. Every year it arrives to beat me down with both new and old crimes against the classics perpetrated by students and their parents. If Sophocles did actually turn in his grave every time someone mangled his name or his works we could probably power a small town with the rotational kinetic energy.
I'm not saying that everyone should come with an innate knowledge of Greek pronunciation, but if you are a high school or college graduate you should have a passing awareness of the big guys of ancient literature. Admittedly, my bias and annoyance are probably heightened by my college study of theatre. By the time I graduated I owned three different editions of The Oresteia. I had read, performed, and picked apart the great Greek works so many times that I could probably still write a very focused, well constructed and intellectually valid paper on their contributions to the the arts and their continued influence on modern theatre. Again, having this in my bank of special skills is why I work in a bookstore,as this knowledge is useful virtually nowhere outside of academia.
I think my main annoyance with the customers, who are apparently trying to avenge the Trojans by butchering the Greeks, is their terrifying lack of knowledge that people wrote books in something other than English IN ANCIENT GREECE.
That's right – the question or confusion I run into the most is about translations of Greek works. I had a woman yesterday tell me that she didn't think her daughter would need a translated version. When I explained that unless her daughter read some version of Greek fluently she would absolutely need a translation the woman looked shocked. “It wasn't written in English?” Nope. Sophocles, though brilliant, didn't write in a language that wouldn't be created until 5,500 years after his death. That's why the play has characters like Antigone, Oedipus, and Creon; not Annie, Oliver and Chris. I've also had several people think that Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is the title of a play by Robert Fagels. (I also enjoy the look of confusion when I explain that it's a play, so it's supposed to be written that way. No, the book is not defective.)
The other mind-blowing Greek confusion that I deal with daily is when people ask for Oedipus Rex and I hand them a copy titled Oedipus the King. Didn't we all learn that Rex means king when we studied dinosaurs as very small children? I can honestly remember having that bit of knowledge in first grade. I bet I could survey a group of small children and most of them could tell me that, yet high school/ college students and their parents look at me as if I am insane when I tell them that Oedipus Rex and Oedipus the King are the same play.
As to the pronunciation problems – it's usually not too bad. If I can piece together what play you want pretty quickly than I'll give you a pass. (I'll still mock you a little bit, but at this point in the year we like to keep a tally certain mis-pronunciations. We take what amusement we can in the BookMines.) However, when it take three tries and then you have to spell it for me, you may need to revisit some Hooked on Phonics tapes. It is especially fun when people add in letters randomly and then expect me to know what they're babbling about. Or when I've pronounced it correctly for them three times and they still think the writer's name is Sophopoclix. Or the play is called Opeedifius. Or – on one memorable occasion – Sopedidiah. I have no idea where the “d”s came from. I will bet that that customer went on to confuse many more booksellers that day as she called around looking for the Odepius Clyxal*
Stay tuned for more Greek slaughter, other tales of summer reading terror, and a re-cap of the history of the ancient world I gave in the music section this week.

*Cycle - couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

BookWench is currently reading Bossypants by Tina Fey.  It's brilliant.  You should all go out and buy copies immediately.  She's my new heroine.  ("And by that I mean lady hero.  I don't mean I want to inject [her] and listen to jazz.")


  1. Isn't Sopedidiah a rapper? Thanks for adding me to your blog list over there!

  2. I think Sopedidiah is a Mexican dessert with cinnamon and honey...

  3. It's like an Amish guy and a famous Greek writer melded together. He could write you a play and then help build your barn.