Friday, 28 February 2014


Many years ago when I studied classical Greek as a student, the textbooks used were the set by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT). At first, using them was a combination of ease and yet feeling lost at times. You see, these were nothing like the previous textbooks I had seen and tried to use. An example, which is a good book but perhaps not for beginners, is Primer of Greek Grammar by Abbott and Mansfield. What undoubtedly terrifies someone new to the subject when they flick through the two hundred and twenty pages of this book is that it is mostly tables of grammatical data and small paragraphs of grammatical rules. That style of throwing an avalanche of grammatical data at a student (and little else) is from the age that the book was written in, the nineteenth century. In that century, even the books trying to provide a simple way to learn classical Greek still began with fifty to a hundred pages or so of grammatical tables. That is how it had been done for who knows how long. The latter part of the twentieth century saw many institutions trying new ways of teaching classical languages. One of those was and still is by JACT.

JACT wanted to do things differently. Instead of bombarding a student with a torrent of grammar in the hope that an understanding of the language would sink in via a monumental process of memorisation, and considering much of what was traditionally to be memorised would not even be used at a beginner’s level, they chose a core amount of grammar and vocabulary which could be learned in a different way – so that a beginner could learn to read classical Greek fairly quickly. And that is perhaps the simplest way of summing up the course: Reading Greek – which is also the name of course. The student learns the grammar and vocabulary of classical Greek by reading Greek from the very first lesson onwards. There is no need to learn a whole book of grammatical tables first or metaphorically swallow a dictionary of classical Greek. With each lesson the student is introduced to a small amount of grammar and a handful of Greek words to learn. They then translate a passage of Greek, which clearly illustrates and practises the particular grammar and vocabulary for that lesson. 

Yes, I know this sounds very similar to many language courses available today but that is only because of the brief description I have given. There are significant differences. One is the speed of learning in the sense of how quickly a student can start making use of what they have learned. The course has twenty sections with anywhere from five to ten lessons in each section. By section five, the student is reading extracts from a comedy by Aristophanes whilst learning about Socrates. I have yet to see any equivalent in a modern language course for beginners, French for example, where less than quarter of the way through the course the student is expected to read the original French of one of the plays of Albert Camus whilst learning about the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre.  Usually by one quarter of the way through a course of French the student has only become proficient in how to introduce themselves, order coffee, ask for directions, book a taxi, and so on. 

And that sums up another difference – the course teaches the student about ancient Greek culture and history in order to aid learning the language.  Unlike other language courses, it does not do this in a trivial way; one of the books (The World of Athens) is a history book written especially for the course. 

After I completed my course in my student days, I still kept my copies of Reading Greek although they were superseded by more advanced level books and I referred to them now and then whenever I needed some clarification of points from those more challenging books on the subject. Since then, JACT has produced a second edition which I was told was a significant improvement on the first edition. Over the years my temptation to examine the second edition and compare it to the first edition has come and gone and come again in a sort of circular torment. I finally gave in to that urge recently when the opportunity arose to put the two editions side by side and take a really good look. In one way, nostalgia encouraged me to be biased towards the first edition. In another way, nostalgia had to admit defeat because the second edition is genuinely far better. 

The second edition uses the same methodology as the first but is different in two ways by the revising and redesigning the main books of the course - Reading Greek: Text and VocabularyReading Greek: Grammar and ExercisesAn Independent Study Guide to Reading Greek  – to make using them easier. 

Firstly, the books are bigger and the design of the text has been laid out in a way easier to read and study. It may not sound like much but compared to the first edition it makes a big difference. 

Secondly, the first edition for some reason was designed with a notion that the student had a prior grasp of Latin and therefore some aspects of classical languages were not approached in a gentler way for the beginner; the second edition dispenses with that notion altogether and is written as if the student is learning any foreign language for the first time. Consequently, a lot more space is given at the beginning of the course to acquaint the reader with relevant terminology of grammar (in English) before explaining the equivalent grammar in Greek.     

In line with all this, the opportunity was taken to revise and update the history book, The World of Athens: An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture (Reading Greek), into a second edition and for it to be published in a format matching the other books. JACT have also retired their single tape cassette for the course by recording a newer version which is a two CD set, Speaking Greek CD (Reading Greek). 

As a student, when I used the first edition, I was very glad of its existence. Now, having seen the second edition, I wish it had existed when I was student. But it did not; so hard luck on me.  

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Second Hand Book Inquiries

This is just a brief blog post regarding people who contact my website, or myself directly, wanting to sell me second hand books for my bookshop.  For some reason, I do not know why, there has been a recent increase in such inquiries from the general public and it is becoming unmanageable. And so, to reduce such inquiries, please note that I only ever buy books from authorised suppliers and not from the general public. 
The contact page of my website will be updated with a similar request. 

Friday, 14 February 2014

1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke

Sometimes you might notice a book about history that takes an angle of being idiosyncratic in some way.

The title may suggest humour or what the publishers like to quote on the back cover from unnamed sources as being “an irreverent” look at history. Upon reading the book, reality quickly hits home with how the promise of humour by the quirky title bears little relation to the mostly unfunny text inside. It is not far from being like the “click bait” used on newspaper websites to make readers click through to what appears to be an interesting piece of news that only turns out to be a space filling non-news story. And nothing kills interest in attempting to read all of something than when it turns out we’ve been misled as to the true nature of the article – or book. I am not saying that everyone is disappointed by such books; such books are in fact a good read and the target audience value them. Even so, there is a margin of people who buy a copy and then give it away on the basis that it wasn’t what they were led to believe. You would think that publishers would be concerned by this but no, they are not. Publishing has a long history of marketing books beyond their target audience in order to maximise profit. One way is to jazz up the title and cover. 

Another type of history book is the one that genuinely does its best to be funny. Unfortunately, reading some of these can quickly become a tiresome experience. There are many reasons. One is if the humour is forced; sometimes over-forced. The style of writing seems to overstate that a joke has been made. Long ago, one of my university tutors described the style to me as being like a command: “I have made a witticism, YOU WILL NOW LAUGH!!!” And like that last sentence that is what the style sometimes contains; lots of unnecessary exclamation marks and phrases in upper case characters. 

Wading through this lottery of popular history paperbacks can therefore be hit or miss for people who are only dipping into the subject for entertainment. If you are among those, then there is a book I highly recommend. It is so good some of you may have already read it. 

It is 1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke. The title does not even begin to relate how funny the book is to read. Although the title suggests a somewhat anti-French approach to the subject of history, that is not the case. Clarke bursts the bubble on many British and French myths about the history of those two countries and their relationships over the past one thousand years. The strength of the book, the strength of the humour, is that Clarke’s style and his ability as a writer is that of a genuinely funny raconteur. The book begins with William the Conqueror, explaining that he was not French and how he greatly disliked the French, and finishes on the Channel Tunnel and the realities of the English and French relations behind its creation. 

It is a thick book with six hundred and eighty-six pages but it does not seem like it as you read it. The saying “time goes quickly when you’re having fun” very much applies to this book.