What I Learned Reading Difficult Books Very Slowly

So what did my days as a student look like? Really, I spent hours and hours each day just… reading. For variety, I did some studying with fellow students, but most of the work was done alone. All Classics majors got a key to the Constantine Library, a spacious room in the department that had all key reference texts and large tables (and comfy chairs) that welcomed students to study. From the window of the Constantine, a lovely view of Homer’s back on the Lawn loomed, hunched over his lyre, a beacon promising better things yet to come to those who persevere—like the ability to read the Homeric epics in the original in another year or two.

That promise eventually came true, by the way, but here’s the thing about intermediate classes in ancient languages. They are reading courses, but it’s not the kind of reading that most people are familiar with. It is one thing to read, say, a novel over the course of a week or two for one’s English literature class. It is very different, by contrast, to be wading through the first un-adapted Greek prose of one’s life. There we were, twelve of us (if memory serves me right), slowly moving through selections from Xenophon’s Hellenica, one very painful sentence at a time, first on our own for homework, and then going through this material in class.

. . . It is no exaggeration to say that I have never read anything as slowly as I did in Intermediate Greek class. But here’s the kicker: I remember very well what I read that semester. I remember, furthermore, the feeling of accomplishment every time I finished yet another complicated sentence. Looking at my battered copy of the Apology from that semester, with my notes in pencil in the margins, one can see that the notes early on covered the entire page, to the point that the Greek text remains barely visible. By the end of the semester, the notes thinned considerably, as my mastery of vocabulary and grammar grew exponentially. My eyeglasses prescription went up too, but I’m sure this was purely coincidental.

. . . Reading ancient languages requires slow and careful thinking and processing of a sort that we do not normally utilize in our pressure-cooker fast-consumer world. It also requires patience, concentration, and an investment to engage faithfully in a task day in, day out, all with an eye to reaping benefits at some point in the future. When? It’s going to be a while, so just wait—and learning to wait to see results is part of the learning process as well. These are all skills that pre-modern life, including its way of reading, readily cultivated. As one of my professors was wont to snipe whenever anyone complained, the process of studying Greek builds character. He was right. And it is specifically the slow and steadfast nature of the process that achieves this character transformation.

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Nadya Williams | “Things I Learned in Intermediate Greek Class” | June 12th, 2023


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