Wednesday, September 5, 2012

2012.09.11

Mary C. English, Georgia L. Irby, A Little Latin Reader. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 187. ISBN 9780199846221. $15.95 (pb).

Reviewed by David M. Pollio, Christopher Newport University (david.pollio@cnu.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

The Latin curriculum is an essential component of most undergraduate Classics programs, and shepherding students successfully from introductory Latin courses through intermediate courses and beyond can have a dramatic impact on the well-being of any Classics program, especially in terms of attracting and keeping majors and minors. Therefore, most (if not all) of us who teach Latin are always on the lookout for anything that will aid us in our efforts, especially when it comes to bridging the gap between introductory Latin texts, which typically feature adapted Latin passages, and intermediate texts, which typically feature authentic passages. So, to assist us in this challenging endeavor, Professors English and Irby have assembled A Little Latin Reader with a simple, yet laudable, goal in mind: "we want students to read as much authentic Latin as possible in their first few years of study" (xv). This goal reflects the authors' concern that many introductory textbooks do not supply enough passages of authentic Latin with the result that, "students become experts at 'textbook' Latin but find the transition to classical authors difficult and frustrating" (xv). I will discuss the particulars of the book's layout and content in the following paragraphs, but let me say at the outset that E. and I. have indeed met their goal by producing a book that easily complements a wide variety of introductory and intermediate texts, methods, and teaching styles.

In 50 short chapters, English and Irby have assembled over 200 passages (2-10 lines in length) of authentic Latin arranged in order of increasing difficulty of the grammatical or syntactical concept being emphasized. In Chapters 1-46, passages are drawn from Caesar, Catullus, Cicero, Horace, Livy, Martial, Ovid, Tacitus, and Vergil and from Latin inscriptions that treat aspects of daily life in the Roman world. In addition, Chapters 47-48 feature longer intermediate passages of prose (Livy, Petronius, Pliny the Younger) and poetry (Vergil, Sulpicia, Ovid), while Chapters 49-50 feature longer advanced passages of prose (Sallust, Tacitus, Suetonius) and poetry (Horace, Germanicus, Statius). Each passage is prefaced with a brief introduction and followed by notes that address issues of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and/or culture. There are also suggestions for further reading, a glossary, and six appendices that are usefully keyed to the reading passages: "Biographical Sketches," "Basic Guide to Latin Meter and Scansion," "Basic Guide to Latin Epigraphy," "Index of Latin Grammar and Syntax," "Index of Roman Culture," and "Guide to Places and Peoples Associated with the Readings" (which includes maps).

According to English and Irby "the arrangement of topics and the length of the passages are intended to provide the highest flexibility in the classroom" (xvi). They then go on to suggest a variety of ways in which the passages could be used: "a single selection can provide additional practice in syntax and translation during the first or last few minutes of a class session; a series of selections can provide the foundation of an entire class meeting; selections can be used for practice and/or testing in translating at sight; or the entire reader can be used as the core text of a comprehensive review of Latin grammar." The book seems well-suited for the first three uses, but less so for the last. It would, I think, be difficult to use the book as a core text for a comprehensive review of Latin grammar, as a good deal of supplementary material would still be required for a proper review of forms and of the finer points of grammar and syntax; it would also be necessary to supply passages longer than ten lines at various points throughout a semester. Furthermore, in this context, it is worth noting that there is no prefatory explanation of the concept(s) treated in a given chapter, nor are there citations of explanations in popular introductory Latin texts or intermediate grammar books. The only indication of the concept under consideration comes from the chapter headings, such as "Imperatives," "Deponent Verbs," "Independent Uses of the Subjunctive," et al. This book, however, is intended to be a reader, not a grammar book, so this observation is offered not as a criticism per se, but as a point of consideration in evaluating how it might best be used in the classroom.

In assembling a book such as this, there will always be at least some disagreement among Latin teachers when it comes to selecting passages, deciding how much information to provide in notes and appendices, ranking grammatical and syntactical concepts in terms of difficulty, and other editorial decisions, but English and Irby have done an admirable job in their decision-making, as nothing strikes me as obviously out of place or inappropriate. For anyone who teaches introductory or intermediate Latin courses, A Little Latin Reader succeeds in its goal of delivering approachable passages of authentic Latin and is worthy of serious consideration for adoption, especially as a supplement to a core text at both the introductory and intermediate levels.

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